“The value of many things are intrinsic, not relative to personal relations. One must follow oneself, belong to oneself, and let others do similarly,” writes 22-year-old AK Ramanujan in his journal. Like all young Indians making the difficult transition to adulthood, Ramanujan is trying to give shape to his evolving persona in a painfully self-conscious way.

The young lecturer teaching English literature in Quilon, Ernakulam and Madurai is not only measuring his own worthiness against his aspirations for a meaningful life, but also coping with being in the world as he finds it. “Seeking the secret of life, we may be aghast to find: the secret is that it’s dirty; nothing is innocent.” Later, during a settled phase in Belgaum, he struggles with his inhibitions when he meets young, attractive women whose affections he aspires to earn. There is scholarship during this period, and poetry, on which he has been working meditatively since his teenage years, including the oft-quoted “River”, set in Madurai.

Between languages

Poet, scholar, translator, philologist, folklorist and playwright AK Ramanujan (1929-93), with a record of dazzling achievements in his lifetime, is celebrated today as a cultural icon and a source of inspiration to many. Yet, underlying these achievements was a complex personal journey that would have given pause to most.

He was Tamil, born and raised in Mysore, in a native Kannada-speaking environment. Son of a mathematician in a household attuned to science, he harboured a natural inclination to literature. Though steeped in the local culture and folklore, he taught English literature in small-town India and wrote poetry in English.

Ak Ramanujan, 1959 | Photo credit: Estate of AKR
Ak Ramanujan, 1959 | Photo credit: Estate of AKR

At thirty, he migrated to America and lived as a brown Indian in the western world for the rest of his life. While he taught linguistics and folklore alongside hardcore academics in the University of Chicago, he blazed new trails as a poet and translator. In addition to English, he wrote poetry and fiction in Kannada as well. He was drawn to and torn between the literatures of three languages. Though not a religious person, he translated medieval Bhakti poetry from Tamil and Kannada into English. Belonging to a conservative Brahmin family, he married a woman of his choosing, a Syrian Christian, for love. He was also divorced twice, afflicted with the attendant trauma and emotional instability. Throughout his life, he struggled to acculturate himself and cope with the western modernity that surrounded him.

A treasure trove

From a very young age, Ramanujan maintained a journal in which he noted down his thoughts, feelings and ideas as well as brief notes on events and encounters in his life. These were crucial to sustaining the life of the mind that was so essential for him. “I needed these notes to clear my seeing,” he writes, “settle my roving thoughts, curiously, restlessly, without regard to any discipline (in both senses of the word).”

The diaries, journals and personal notes that the poet left behind have been edited and presented in an elegant volume, Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, by his son, Krishna Ramanujan and Guillermo Rodriguez, a leading scholar of Ramanujan’s works. Divided into four sections that cover roughly a decade each and a fifth one that is a record of his journey to the US on a Fulbright scholarship in 1959, this volume is a treasure trove for those seeking glimpses of the person behind the work.

Written consistently with a poetic sensibility and a meditative awareness – of the self and the world – these journals are like the finest poetry, affording both contemplation and pleasure at the same time. Like the man himself, the entries are variegated, traversing many themes, eras and worlds, and the reader is left to find what might please their own heart. I will restrict myself to a few selected themes in the following paragraphs.

Of uncertainty and poetry

Inner turmoil, brought on by anxiety and uncertainty, is a constant theme that pervades these journals, virtually throughout his lifetime. Perhaps this sense of unease, of being out of joint, was unavoidable given the displacement and disjuncture – spatial, cultural and professional – that Ramanujan had to deal with in the course of his “journeys”. It was perhaps his restless movement between disparate worlds that left him feeling isolated, even when he was close to fifty. “Deep sense of inadequacy about people. I feel I have little sense of who they are.” Wanting to write stories, he feels “a lack of experience – at fifty-one, I am disenchanted with my abstractions, idea-mongering, which too seems inadequate.”

In order to steady himself, he returns to maxims that he had adopted as a 18-year-old. “No ambition, because it limits you.” “Take nothing that’s not given.” “Everything comes to him who waits.” Stranded among Calvinists, he seeks refuge in the wisdom of the Buddha to which he was drawn in early youth.

AKR at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 1992 | Photo credit: Arvind Garg
AKR at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 1992 | Photo credit: Arvind Garg

As may be expected, poetry floods these pages. It is fascinating to see how some observations at a certain stage of his life lead to a familiar, much-loved poem: “Watch your step. Sight may strike you / blind in unexpected places” (“Chicago Zen”), or learn the provenance of a beauty like “The Striders”: “No, not only prophets / walk on water.” Even more delightful is the profusion of unpublished drafts resulting from trains of thoughts recorded in these journals, giving us in each instance a sense of the poet’s striving and a reminder that the published poems are but drafts made through re-making; as Ramanujan notes, quoting Heinrich Heine, “A glow-worm is only a grub in the morning.”

A multiple monolingual

On working with multiple languages, Ramanujan says that while one may feel the richness of three languages in oneself, one idealises the monolingual, who seems whole at least in his language. It also entails the desperate attempt to “keep up with the writers and speakers of all three, in vain”. While writing, he says, he tends to be an alternating multiple monolingual than a “multilingual”. Ramanujan’s observations on languages could stimulate energetic discussion on these aspects among the post-colonials, who appear fiercely monolingual but not all that “whole”.

What Ramanujan says in these journals about “what happens in translation” is sound, but his ideas have been expanded and amplified in the subsequent 25 years. However, this particular passage strikes me as salutary, and not yet adequately grasped by our milieu: “the translator in his time and place inevitably brings the politics, aware or unawares, of his time, place, class and gender, and even his responses and rebellions against the politics of his peers.”

Here, a reviewer can only offer a few pickings from a veritable feast for the mind. The reader must grab the rest. I am sure that this volume, as elegant and full of light as its subject-author, will be savoured and cherished for many years to come.

Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, AK Ramanujan, edited by Krishna Ramanujan and Guillermo Rodriguez.