River Once By Parthasarathy


R. Parthasarathy (born 1934) is an Indian poet, translator, critic, and editor. Rajagopal Parthasarathy was born in 1934 at Tirupparaiturai near Tiruchchirappalli. He was educated at Don Bosco High School and Siddharth College, Mumbai and at Leeds University, UK, where he was British Council Scholar in 1963– 64. He was Lecturer in English Literature in Mumbai for ten years before joining Oxford

University Press in 1971 as Regional Editor in Chennai. He moved to New Delhi in 1978. He is an Associate Professor of English and Asian Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA. His works include Poetry from Leeds in 1968, Rough Passage brought out by Oxford University Press in 1977, a long poem ( Preface “a book where all poems form part of a single poem, as it were” – R. Parthasarathy ) and edited Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets published by Oxford University Press in 1976 which went into Sixteenth
Impression only in 2002. He translates from Tamil to English.

Parthasarathy was awarded the Ulka Poetry Prize of Poetry India in 1966. He was a member of the University of Iowa Writing Program during 1978– 79. He has been a member of the Advisory Board for English of the Sahitya Akademi – the National Academy of Letters, New Delhi, India. His translation into modern English verse of the 5th-century Tamil epic, The Tale of the Anklet: An Epic of South India (Columbia University Press, 1993) has received significant awards including the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize in 1995 and The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. – A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation in 1996.

Vaikai: – The Vaikai flows through Madurai, the “sweet city”, and capital of the Pandiya Kings. Tamil tradition tells of three literary academics (CANKAM) that met at Madurai.

Summary of the poem

“River Once” is an interesting poem on the deterioration of River Vaikai. The river tells its own story. The river is personified. The river says that the boys play with paper boats and tickle its ribs. The buffaloes that are wallowing in the water have turned that particular spot into a muddy pond. On the floating river could be seen eaglewood and stale flowers. People throw waste materials into the river. During the evening when the temple bell rings a man comes there to wash his bottom. Small birds like Kingfishers and egrets drop semi-solid food in the river. Even emperors and poets lie in the arms of the tan river. The river sadly utters that it has turned into a sewer and no one has any use for Vaikai, which was once a beautiful river of the sweet city, Madurai.

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The poet points out the carelessness of people maintaining the purity of the river. Since the river is polluted now, no one has any use for it. The river sadly expresses its frustration about its condition. The poem is engaging because of the presentation from the river’s point of view. The personification is effectively maintained throughout the poem. (Small boys tickle the ribs, stale flowers on the hair, emperors and poets in the arm and so on).

R.Parthasarathy’s disappointment about the changed appearance of some of the places in his home country as expressed in the poems ‘Under Another Sky and “River Once‘’, bring out the frustration of the emigre who comes back with the hope of finding happiness but only has disappointment since things are not the same and he is not the same person.


This poem highlights the exploitation 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 river is now lost as it has turned into a mere sewer due to human exploitation or misuse of the river.

The poem begins by describing the present, pitiable condition of the river Vaikai. It is now frequented by children who come to float paper boats in it and by buffaloes who wallow in it, degrading the river into feeling like a pond. There’s wood barks and stale flowers all over the river. It’s as if the mother’s (rivers) hair is decorated with eaglewood and dead flowers. And men come to defecate or bath in the river even while the temple bell tolls. The river’s divinity is lost forever now.

The word ‘ribs’ used here is a metaphor for the banks of the river. The river itself is conscious of its ugliness and dirt (which is concrete evidence of man’s abuse). The once glorious river is now reduced to merely a storehouse of junk, a place for unhygienic and unholy activities.

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The poet then describes the past glory enjoyed by the river. How it was once a source of inspiration for poets and a place of refuge for Emperors and Kings. As a mother, she proudly fed birds like the Kingfisher and Egrets (egrets are white herons). It must be noted that ‘egrets’ in Chinese symbolism are considered as a symbol of purity, patience and long life. Herons were also thought to have the ability to communicate with Gods. And Kingfishers are generally considered as a promise of prosperity. Hence both the kingfisher and egret refer to the once prosperous, pure and divine state enjoyed by the river Vaikai. Now, they have all flown away from her breasts (paps) as she is unable to feed them as she has turned or degraded into a mere sewer.

She is no more a river and this takes us to the significance of the title of the poem, “River, Once”. It was a river once indeed but not a river anymore and has instead become a sewer due to man’s exploitation and indifference towards nature. The poem ends with the river’s self-realization that no one has any use for the river Vaikai now. Contrastive pictures are presented throughout the poem which helps to highlight the difference between the old glory of the river as compared to the present degraded state. River, which is considered as a symbol of life, is now contaminated just like human life.
“River, Once” by Parthasarathy is a poem that was inspired by A.K.Ramanujan’s poem “A River”, as Parthasarathy himself admits. Both Parthasarathy and Ramanujan use literature as a means to shed light on ecological imbalances in the world. Parthasarathy seeks changes in human attitude towards nature, he wants them to realize the inter-dependable relation humans have with nature.


R. Parthasarathy’s ‘River once’ indicates that it was a river once and it is no longer a river due to man’s indifference to the beauty of nature. The poet expresses his sense of shock at the degradation of the river Vaikai, which flows through the city of Madurai. Using the device of contrast effectively, the poet shows how the river that was once the cradle of a glorious culture has now become a sewer. The river is personified as a mother. The mother river feels for her lost glory and speaks about her present pitiable condition. The Vaikai was a fast-flowing perennial river once and a glorious civilization flourished on its banks. Now it has become a play-field for boys and the mischievous boys “tickle the ribs” with paper boats. The word “ribs’ has been used metaphorically for the banks of the rivers. Buffaloes have turned the river into a pond and are wallowing in it. Once there were flower gardens on the banks of the river and now one finds only thorny bushes and shrubs.

There is eaglewood in my hair and state flowers. Now a lot of eaglewood floats on the water and state flowers that are thrown into it can also be the sun. Once was the refuge of emperors and poets. The poets of the past came to her for inspiration. She inspired them to write great poetry. Here the poet makes a reference to the three great Tamil Academies that flourished at Madurai in the ancient past and to the great contribution made by Sangam poets to the richness of ancient Tamil Poetry. In the past, birds like Kingfishers and egrets were regular visitors and as a mother the river fed them. Now they have flown away as she is unable to feed them. The poet presents an altogether different scene of the river today in a humorous and ironic vein. Every evening “when bells roll in the forehead of temples”, a man comes to the river for defecating in it unmindful of the divine call of the temple bell. The poet presents this ugly scene to highlight man’s indifference to the beauty of nature. Once people congregated on the banks of the river Vaikai for noble purposes but ironically now they do so for different and unholy purposes. Now the river Vaikai has become a receptacle of refuse. “River, ‘Once” is indeed a powerful poem deeply felt and powerfully expressed. The river is a symbol of the flow of life but in its present contaminated state, it is only a symbol of what human life has become. Anguished over the decay of the river the poet seems to convey the idea that nature has made everything beautiful but man has rendered it ugly because he has lost the sense of wonder and beauty. The poet has succeeded in presenting this idea through contrastive pen-pictures.

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