Summary of A River By Ramanujan

Madurai is the city of temples and poets. According to the poet, the sole concern of the earlier poets was to sing of the beauty of the city, its temples and its river. In every summer the river dries up making the sand visible. As the water level of the river decreases the sand looks like ribs of human. In addition to the sand, there are straws and woman hair under the bridges with rusty bars and patches of repair all over them.

There are also shining wet stones that look like sleeping crocodiles, and those that are dry tend to be water-buffaloes with no hair relaxing in the sun. No poet, however, sings of this. They just sing of the rainy season, without mentioning the sufferings of the common people caused by the monsoon river.

The poet claims he observed the flood of the river during the monsoon. People everywhere spoke about the rising water level of the river and the number of cobbled steps in the bathing place that it had submerged. It also took three village homes, a pregnant woman and a couple of cows by the humorous name of Gopi and Brinda.

However, the new poets who are Ramanujan’s contemporary still quote the old poets without paying attention to the present circumstances. They never talked about the pregnant woman drowned with the twins in her womb. The poet imagines that the twines were kicking to escape while their mother was drowning but they could not and ultimately drown to death with their mother. The poets never presented this heart rendering incident in their poems.

The poet refers to himself using the third person ‘he’. According to the poet, the river becomes poetic only once a year to satisfy the romantic and aesthetic feeling of the poets. Then in a sudden turn, the poet tells that in just half an hour, the river takes away three houses, a couple of cows and a pregnant woman who was expecting twins and was also thinking of having diapers of different colours to distinguish between them. Here the poet compares and contrasts the poetry of the other poets of his age with that of his own. On one hand, all other poets are very much interested in praising the beauty of the river on the other hand; our poet makes a balance between the beauty and the sufferings inflicted on the people by it.

Short Summary of A River

A River by the A.K. Ramanujan explains how poets of the past and present have romanticised the Madurai River. The poem starts with the speaker saying that every year, every poet sings the same songs about the riverbed, sometimes flooding, and sometimes dry. When it is empty, it reveals all of its secret objects. The poets still sang about this time and the other period in which the flood took place. But, they’re not getting into the particulars of who’s being affected. In the next stanzas, the speaker relays the words of the people of this region as they explain what has happened this year. Houses were swept away, including two cows and a woman who believed she was pregnant with twins. The speaker mocks old and modern poets for not caring enough to dig deeper into their environment.

Explanation of the poem

A River by A.K. Ramanujan is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza consists of sixteen lines, the second: eleven, the third: seven, and the fourth: fifteen. They may not follow a strict rhyme scheme, but there are moments of repetition that help to establish a rhythm.

Most obviously, there is a refrain that is used in the second and fourth stanzas and is only slightly altered. The speaker explains what occurred during this specific flood and then repeats the same thing. This works in two respects, first of all, to highlight the loss. But at the same time, the reader is also desensitising. One comes to expect disaster, as those who live in the region do, and see it as another aspect of the flood/drought.

Stanza one

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker starts by setting the scene. He is going to explain how the city of “Madurai” is portrayed by poets. It is a place made up of “temples and poets” and these poets have always sung the same thing. The river basin is drained every summer in the city. The river “dries a trickle” and the sand is bared. The shapes and items that have been exposed are dark and very ominous. They are “sand ribs” and “straw and women’s hair.” These stuff clogged the “watergates,” made of rusty bars.

In these lines, Ramanujan uses assonance with the repetition of the “g” tone.

Rhythm is also generated by the reuse of the word “sand” in lines six and seven. Then, in general, the repetition of the words starting with “s,” or the words bearing the “s” sound. This is particularly true of the first half of the stanza.

Everything about the drainage system is old and in need of maintenance. The bridge is in the patches, a fact that is exposed as the waters recede. In the last lines of this stanza, Ramanujan uses two metaphors to equate stones with animals. The wet ones appear as the sleeping crocodiles and the dry ones as the lounging water buffaloes. Despite all this, the poets “only sang of the floods.” There’s so much more to the city that the poets are neglecting it.

Stanza Two

The second stanza of the poem is just eleven lines long. The “He” in the first line is a reference to a poet, probably the speaker himself. He claims he’s only been in town for “a day.” It is in this stanza that a number of more nuanced and personal details are revealed. A variety of the more complex and personal details are unveiled in this stanza. The details were not hidden; the poet featured in this stanza easily learned them. Everywhere the people were talking about the flood and the horrible things that had happened in it. This is not just a simple natural phenomenon. It carried off “three village houses” as well as a pregnant woman and “a couple of cows.” The cows have names, making certain lines lighter in tone than some of the others. The list-like manner in which this stanza of the poem is conveyed makes it clear that these are not rare occurrences. The people are used to them.

Stanza Three

In the third stanza of “A River” the problem the speaker has with poets is made clearer as he talks of the parallels between “old poets” and “new poets.” Both spoke of the flooding but overlooked the subsequent tragedies. Probably, the new poets repeated what the old ones did, to make things worse. In style or theme, there was no evolution. In the fifth and sixth lines of this, the speaker notes that it is likely that the woman who died was going to give birth to twins, raising the life lost. This is a very intriguing contrast to the flooding of the river in the first place. The water is intended to fertilise the soil and make it possible to develop the next crop. Life is destroyed as it is being created.

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Stanza Four

The speaker relays the words of the poet again in the final stanza. He said the poet complained about how “the river has enough water / to be poetic / only about once a year.” The poets pay attention to it only once a year, and even then, they don’t want to talk about the loss of property or life.

A portion of the second stanza is repeated by the speaker again, restating what was lost. Extra details have been added. Now, he’s claiming that the woman felt she was “expecting identical twins.” They were going to be completely the same, with no way to differentiate them except by dressing them in “coloured diapers.” Another humourous line is this, but it has a darker undertone. This relates to the lack of concern with which the poets treated the land and people. There is no attempt to learn who these people are or strive to properly depict their pain.

Analysis of The Poem A River

In this beautiful poem, the poet 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 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

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 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.

Poetic Techniques in A River

Ramanujan also uses a variety of poetic techniques, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, and enjambment to unify the text. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. Assonance and consonance are other forms of repetition in which a vowel or consonant sound is used multiple times, in words which close in proximity. A few of these are noted with the body of the text.

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Enjambment is another important technique. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. A great example is between lines four and five in which a reader has to move down a line to find out what summer brings.

All of these techniques contribute to the speaker’s tone. It fluctuates back and forth between disappointed, analytical and even lighthearted at times.

Questions and Answers

Q. Which river is mentioned in the extract? What is Madurai reputed for? What was the subject of the poets of Madurai?

Ans. The river Vaikai which flows through the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is mentioned in the extract. Madurai is famous for its spiritual, literary and cultural heritage; its magnificent city with its numerous impressive temples built by the kings that ruled Madurai in the past.

The poets of Madurai, its minstrels, wrote and sang eulogies of its marvellous temples and its magnificent cites. In a way, these eulogies can be deemed as eulogies of the kings who built these temples and cities and patronized the literati.

2. What do the images of the river drying to a trickle and the sand ribs suggest?

Ans. The river drying to a trickle conveys the scorching heat of summer that dries up everything and makes life unbearably miserable with the accompanying famine and starvation. The dried river exposes the sand dunes at the bottom of the river and they bring to our mind the skeletal rib cages of a starved human being.

Both the images bring out the ugly aspect of the dried-up river that brings drought, which in turn causes gruesome misery and starvation. The human suffering caused by the drought is suggested by the river drying to a trickle exposing the bone-dry expanse of the sand dunes.

Q. What do the straw and women’s hair do? What do they signify?

Ans. The straw and women’s hair choke or block the watergates under the bridges which have patches of repair all over them. The three images -of the straw and women’s hair and the bridges in disrepair -together create a scenario of filth and wretchedness which the flowing river has masked. However, the dry river bares and exposes the ugliness that lies underneath.

The poet may be suggesting the attempt of the poets to hide or callously ignore the stark and harsh social reality by writing poems of cities and temples.

Q. How does the poet describe the stones or boulders at the bottom of the river? To what does he compare them? Why?
Ans. He was there for a day when they had the floods. Using the figure of speech simile, the poet compares the wet stones to sleepy crocodiles and the dry boulders to shaved buffalos. The sleepy voracious crocodiles hint at the impending disaster because of the unhygienic and polluted environment. Probably, the disaster has already occurred because the poet evokes the image of shaven buffalos. In all probability, the buffalos have lost all their hair because of some fatal disease caused by the contaminated water and the environment.

Q. Bring out the irony in the last line of the extract: The poets only sang of the floods.
Ans. The poet paints a picture of disaster and ruin by presenting the dried river in summer and the likely consequence of the unhealthy environment on man and beast. However, both the old and the new poets are apathetic to the bleak and harsh reality around them.

Ironically these poets totally ignore the misery around them and write about the romance of the river in flood.

Q. Who is referred to as ‘He’ in the poem? Where is he now” Why? He is a visitor to the city of Madurai who has gone there to see the river Vaikai in flood.
Ans. He can be a modern poet, probably the poet Ramanujan himself. Poets have romanticized the beauty of the river Vaikai in flood and he had gone there to observe the beauty of the flooded river.

Q. What were the destructions caused by the river? What was the reaction of the people towards this tragic occurrence?
Ans. The poet says that the monstrous flood had carried away three village houses, a pregnant woman and a pair of cows. These images signify the terrible loss of property (three village houses], enormous loss of human life (a pregnant woman) as well as the loss of villagers’ livelihood (a pair of cows).

The people were apathetic toward the tragic destruction caused by the flood; they talked about superfluous matters like the exact number of cobbled steps run over by the flood or about the gradual rising of water in the river. The use of the phrase ‘as usual’ suggests the familiarity of the villagers with the havoc caused by the flood. The flood has become a usual annual event and the villagers have become immune to its destructive fury.

Q. Comment on the lines: a couple of cows/ named Gopi and Brinda as usual.
Ans. The poet had nowhere mentioned the name of any human individual but he gives the cows names of divine figures. This is to convey the importance of the cows to the villagers; the cows are sacred to the villagers and also their main source of livelihood.

Q.How do you react to the poet’s description of the unborn twins kicking at blank walls of the womb?
Ans. The poet here depicts a harrowing picture of human struggle and its futility. The twins are frantically kicking at the wall of the womb of the pregnant women to escape from their awful condition. However, the struggle is futile. They also drown along with their mother. The scene is too deep for tears.

In a way, the poet implies that for the common man the struggle starts even before his birth and there is no escape from the bleak and dreary life he has to face in the world.

Q. What do you infer from the following lines:
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
Ans. The pregnant woman might have dreamt about the unborn children and might have had great hopes and aspiration of them. The drowning of the pregnant women signifies the drowning of the hopes and aspiration about the ordinary people which are shattered by the tragic flood.

Q. Comment on the theme of the poem.
Ans. The theme of the poem ‘A River’ is the insensitive attitude and the complete unconcern of the city poets, both the old and the new, towards the tragic situation of human suffering and fatality. We are distraught that they ‘sang only of the floods’ when they should have rather tried to alleviate the people of their miserable state. The poem also raises the question of the commitment of a poet or artist towards society.

Extra 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

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Q. How is humour presented in this poem?
Ans. Humour 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.

Long Answer Questions

1. How does Ramanujan compare and contrast the attitudes of the old poets and those of the new poets to human suffering in his poem A River?

Ans. Published in his magnum opus, The Striders in1965, A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘A River’ is one of his finest poems. The poem is all about a river, Vaigai which flows through the heart of Madurai city. In this poem, the poet graphically presents the sufferings inflicted on the people by the river during monsoon which remain ever unnoticed to the earlier poets and the new poets as well. Through this poem, the poet raises the question of an artist’s commitment to the society. He has compared and contrasted the mind-set of the old poets and those of the new poets to human misery. Both the poets are apathetic to human sorrow and suffering. Their poetry does not mirror the miseries of human beings; on the other hand, they are concerned with the themes that are far away from the stark reality before them. They write about the beauty of the river in full flood completely ignoring the devastation and human tragedy wreaked by this beastly force.

In the poem A River, the poet presents two strikingly contrasting pictures of the river: a vivid picture of the river in the summer season and the river in its full flow when the floods arrive with devastating fury. In summer, the river is almost barren and arid. As the water level of the river decreases the sand looks like ribs of human. In addition to the sand, there are straws and woman hair under the bridges with rusty bars and patches of repair all over them. There are also shining wet stones which look like sleeping crocodiles and those which are dry appear to be water- buffaloes without hair relaxing in the sun. These are all together symbolizing the decadence of Tamil culture.

However, no poet sings of this. They become poetic only once a year that is in the season of monsoon when the river flows in its full majesty satisfying their appetite for aestheticism. But Ramanujan presents another side of the river in the rainy season. . With a few stark images, the poet completes the picture of the river and its complexities which have been glossed over and ignored over the time. He notes the casual approach of the towns people. Anxiously they talk of the rising level of water and enumerate mechanically the ‘precise’ number of steps as the water brims over the bathing places and how “The river carries off/‘three village houses, / one pregnant woman/ and a couple of cows/ named Gopi and Brinda as usual.’

Thus a River illustrates many significant features of Ramanujan’s poetry, such as his adept linking of the past and the present to introduce the idea of continuity, his effortless depiction of the typical Indian surroundings. 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. This kind of attitude makes their poetry weak and unappealing, dry and cheerless.

2. Write a note on the significance of symbols and imagery used by A. k Ramanujan in his poem a River.

Ans. Symbols are basically concrete objects or images used in the work of literature to convey abstract ideas. They are often used to support a literary theme subtly. The symbol is something that represents something else either by association or by resemblance. Now what strikes one most about Ramanujan’s poetry is the richness of his imagery and symbols which form the very core of his poetic art. His poetry is a fabric woven from threads of concept, emotion and sense.It is the senses, which help him observe his environment critically and objectively.Every image, he employs, relates to a kind of sensory stimulation. So, while expressing general ideas as well as inherent meaning, he constructs images with which his memory and imagination are steeped.

His poem contains some of the striking images and symbols which are very suggestive and meaningful. The river itself is a symbol of fertility and loss. It is a destroyer and preserver of life. With a few stark images, the poet completes the picture of the river and its complexities. He notes the casual approach of the towns people who talk of the rising level of water submerging the ‘cobbled steps’ in the bathing places and how “The river carries off/‘three village houses, / one pregnant woman/ and a couple of cows/ named Gopi and Brinda as usual.’ Here the poet is talking about the flood which is the symbol of destruction to person and property and fertility as well.

The river also acts as a tool for linking the past and the present to introduce the idea of continuity. Ramanujan’s depiction of the river in season of summer is very symbolic. In the summer, the river is almost dry and arid. Only a very thin stream of water flows. So the sand ribs on the bed of the river are visible. The stones that lie on the bed of the river also exposed to view. On the Sandy bed could be seen the hair and straw clogging the Watergates. The iron bars under the bridge require repair. The wet stones are all like sleeping crocodiles. The dry stones look like the shaven buffaloes. All those symbolize the utter wretchedness and degeneration of human condition in Hindu culture.

The poet says, “The new poets still quoted/ the old poets, but no one spoke/ inverse of the pregnant woman/ –drowned, with perhaps twins in her/kicking at the blank walls even before birth” and through these lines, he satirizes and debunks the traditional romantic view of the river Vaigai in Madurai, by the ancient poets. The image of “pregnant woman” implies a fine example of two generations, the present and the future. This is a poignant imagery full of pathos.

Thus, in conclusion, we can say A River is a fine poem with suggestive and picturesque imagery which reveal A .k Ramanujan’s ability as a flawless poetic craftsman.

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  1. […] of nature by human beings. The river in Parthasarathy’s “River Once” refers to Vaikai River in the city of Madurai. The river is personified as a mother in this poem. The old glory of the […]

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