A River By Ramanujan
In “A River” Ramanujan throws light on the reality of the present and the past. The poem is born out of the memory of his Madurai visit when the floods made of the River Vaigai. Here, the poet contrasts images of drought and floods. His complaint is that contemporary poets do not see poetic possibilities in human situations. In the past, the poets were the appreciators of the cities, temples, rivers, streams and are indifferent to the miseries of human beings and animals.
Summary/ Analysis of the poem
It turns to a dry trickle, uncovering ‘sand ribs’. He details the underbelly of the river that stays hidden. Visible now, are the bits of straw and women’s hair that chokes the rusty gates of the dam and the bridges that are plastered over with ‘patches of repair’.
The narrator points out wryly that the poets who sang and they, who now mimic them, see only the symbolism of vitality when the river is flooded. With a few sharp pictures, the poet completes a description of the river and its dynamics, which have been glossed over and ignored. But not just to emphasise the bleak, unloving perspective, the poet brings alive the beauty that lies open in the summer. This has been lost on the sensibilities of past poets: the wet stones glistening like sleeping crocodiles, the dry ones shaved with water-buffaloes lying in the light. (13-15)
Using vivid similes, he refers to a lack of imagination of the old poets who ‘only sang of the floods’.
In Stanza 2, the poet talks of a river in a rainfall flood. He was there once and saw what had happened. The river in the cliff kills everything in its wake, from living-stock to houses to human life. This occurs once a year, and has been going on in the same pattern for years.
He notices the casual attitude of the townspeople. They are anxiously talking about the rising water level and mechanically describing the ‘precise’ number of steps as the water flows through the bathing areas.
The river carries off: ‘three village houses, one pregnant woman and a couple of cows named Gopi and Brinda as usual.’
These are itemised, cursorily identified as in a catalogue, three, one, two. As mere numbers, the early poets and their descendants tick off the losses as mere statistics, unheading the devastation, misery and human misery left in the wake of the flood. According to the speaker, their purpose is simply to document a dramatic event in order to catch people’s momentary attention. He finds this attitude shocking and callous.
Between the village houses and Gopi and Brinda, the two cows is remarked, one pregnant woman. No one knows what her name is and she is glossed over peremptorily. Yet the poet imagines that she may have drowned with not one life in her but two—‘twins in her’ which kicked at blank walls even before birth.
Continuing with the study of the river by Ramanujan, the poets thought that it was enough to multiply and exalt the river only when it flooded once a year. Though they sang the river as a transformative force that gave birth to a new existence, the paradox of a pregnant woman who drowned with twins in her eludes them. Embracing only the beauty of the floods, they fail to understand its more nuanced effects on human life. The narrator gives us a more full picture of the river as both a destroyer and a preserver. He’s cynical about the poets of yore who took advantage of the floods to write about, and only once a year.
‘the river has water enough to be poetic about only once a year’
Theme of the poem A River by Ramanujan
The above lines satirize and debunk the traditional romantic view of the river Vaikai in Madurai, by the ancient poets. He is derisive too, of the new poets who have no wit but to blindly copy their predecessors.
Humour is presented in the names of the cows and the coloured diapers of the twins to help tell them apart. Yet this too is an attack on the orthodoxy of Hinduism. While cows are given names, no one knows who the pregnant woman is nor are they concerned. Human sacrifices were performed to appease the gods because of droughts in Tamil Nadu, and the drowned twin babies may be a reference to such cruel and orthodox rituals.
This is an unusual poem with many layers of meaning and is a commentary on the indifference of the old and modern poets to the ravages caused by the river in flood and the pain and suffering caused to humans.
The poet completes the picture of the river and its dynamics with a few stark images, which have been glossed over and ignored. But, not to neglect the mere bleak, unlovely point, the poet often brings the beauty that lies open in the summer to life. Through referencing the city of “Madurai,” the opening line immediately introduces the key physical setting of the poem. By the end of the work, however, the poem ‘s importance would surpass its significance to this specific location. Instead of large abstractions or generalisations, the speaker uses Madurai as his setting to provide informative, concrete details. However, it will be evident by the time the poem finishes that the essence of his words transcends their significance for any particular city. In the end, this is a poem that is realistic, traditional, and/or highly creative about the variations between writing.
Madurai is described in line 2 as a “city of temples and poets,” making it sound like a place of great spiritual importance and associating it with creativity and beauty as well. Indeed, his poets also sang of “cities and temples” (3), thus praising places of great significance. But no sooner does the speaker make Madurai sound like a mythical, glorious place than he instantly complicates this impression (or even undercuts it). He reports that the city’s river “dries to a trickle” every summer, a river that could itself symbolise strength, vitality, and energy (5), so that many of its typically concealed imperfections and unattractive aspects are suddenly apparent, such as
straw and women’s hair clogging the water gates at the rusty bars under the bridges with patches of repair all over them….(8-12)
Part of the function of the present poem, then, is to reveal what is normally unseen and thereby deal with the full complexities of the river. The poet doesn’t hesitate to describe aspects of Madurai that conflict with the simplistic, romantic imagery with which the poem opened. This speaker and this poem present some of the full facts about Madurai, whereas other poets have tended merely to celebrate merely the beautiful, mystical aspects of the place.
To say this, however, is not to say that the speaker of this poem dwells only on the uglier aspects of the city or its river. Indeed, his descriptions of details that are not usually mentioned in other poems about Madurai are themselves sometimes beautiful. Thus he mentions the
the wet stones glistening like sleepy crocodiles, the dry ones shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun….(13-15)
Here his imagery is vivid and his similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”) are inventive
Solved Questions and Answers:
Q. What does the opening line of the poem present?
Ans. The opening line immediately presents the main physical setting of the poem by mentioning the city of “Madurai
Q. How is humour presented in this poem?
Ans. Humor is presented in the names of the cows and the coloured diapers of the twins to help tell them apart which is an attack on the orthodoxy of Hinduism
Q. How is the imagery presented in the poem?
Ans. The poet doesn’t hesitate to describe aspects of Madurai which contradicts with the imagery of other poets that are romantic and beautiful. The imagery is vivid and his similes and comparisons are inventive. With a few stark images, the poet completes the picture of the river and its complexities which have been glossed over and ignored. Yet not to stress the merely the grim, unlovely angle, the poet brings alive the beauty too, which lies open in the summer.
Q. Why is this poem called unusual?
Ans. This is an unusual poem with many layers of meaning and is a commentary on the indifference of the old and modern poets to the ravages caused by the river in flood and the pain and suffering caused to humans.
Q. How is Madurai described in line 2 of this poem?
Ans. In line 2, Madurai is described as a “city of temples and poets,” making it sound like a place of great spiritual significance and associating it also with creativity and beauty.
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