The Highway Stripper – Analysis
This poem is perhaps one of the few where the use of imagery, especiallys erotic imagery, serves to divert the reader’s attention away from the poem’s true purpose. The spiritual sense conveyed here, one related to Bhakti, is not easily understood. Ramanujan travelled to the United States when he was 30 years old and remained there till his death. Based on his own experiences in the United States, many of his works focus on the lack of a transcultural mentality in a supposedly globalised world. Another aspect to mention is that Ramanujan was a firm believer in Bhakti and its ideals, and he also translated a number of Bhakti-related verses. These two concepts play a significant role in this poem as well.
All the verses of the poem, except the last two ones, are easy to comprehend, where Ramanujan speaks about how he was once travelling on the highway behind a Mustang when suddenly he saw lots of pieces of female clothing being thrown out of the window one by one. There is profound stress on the female sexual factor in terms of imagery, with the use of words like a slip, bra and panties. He uses terms like a white shoe fit to be a fetish, a fluttery slip, faded pink, ordinary used and off whitish bra, bright red panties and so. The use of these suggests that the person wearing these clothes is obviously not very financially well off and so is wearing old clothes and that the person has a gaudy dress sense. These two factors associated with a female make a direct implication as a metaphor for a prostitute or a stripper.
In striking contrast here are terms like dusty, blue, Mustang, speeding that are implicit symbols of masculinity. These two elements of a woman’s sexuality and a man’s vigour are juxtaposed to create two very different erotic scenes, which blend in together and are yet in complete contrast to one another.
In the next stanza, the poet creates a heightened sexual tension and urge as he himself is overpowered to go and see the stripper on the highway. He lets his curiosity wander to the limit where he suggests through imagery that the lover has his hand over the stripper’s thigh and there may be more than one man with her. The use of hyperbole in his thoughts suggests the amount of sexual feeling he wants to build in the reader’s mind before reaching an anti-climax.
When he overtakes the car in which the stripper sits, he is shocked to see only a man behind the wheel, a spectacled man, aged around forty, listening to a football radio channel. Presenting the actual image of the stripper with the use of a spectacled profile, about forty, football radio brings in the element of irony in the poem as the stripper is not only a man but is as far from being a woman as possible. He checks again in his rearview mirror but finds only the man in the car.
The next two verses are the most critical to understand the entire theme of the poem. To understand this, let us first get an insight into a very interesting concept of Bhakti, called nirguna. Nirguna is a state of devotion to God in which the worshipper merges with his God and becomes a part of him. It is important to understand that in order to achieve nirguna, a person must give up all material forms. There is no bodily being; there is only oneness with God. The notion of ardhnarishwar, a merger of Shiva and Parvati, is extremely similar. Ardhnarishwar represents totality and completion, which can only be achieved when the masculine and female join. It is a belief that every person possesses spiritual elements of both genders that exist outside of the physical body’s gender. When a person achieves a level of totality, which is beyond his or her physical body, he or she has achieved a balance between the male and female aspects of his or her mind. To achieve nirguna, one must have a state of mind that is independent of one’s bodily gender.
Ramanujan suddenly portrays the stripper on the highway as spiritual rather than sexual. In just two lines, the emphasis turns entirely to the spiritual being, with the stripper shown as a synthesis of male and female, a sign of achieving unity with God. In the final verse, Ramanujan clarifies this by asking if it was he who was shedding his old beliefs and striving for a perfect coupling of the male and female within himself, with naked nothing, with his God, in a world without places, in a place where only spiritual beings, not physical beings, reign supreme.
The last line, on the other hand, could imply that the highway stripper is a hermaphrodite or a transgender person, and that Ramanujan is now letting go of his previous conservative ideals despite coming from a conservative culture. By doing so, he is now working for an ideal society that is transcultural, that is, a world that is not influenced by people’s origins. He refers to this world as a naked nothing, however, because such a world, devoid of any cultural differences, can only be imagined and not actual.
Questions and Answers
Q. What does the poet intend when he talks about the clothing that were thrown from the window while he was travelling the highway?
Ans. The use of these clothing suggests that the person wearing these clothes is obviously not very financially well off and so is wearing old clothes and that the person has a gaudy dress sense. These two factors associated with a female make a direct implication as a metaphor for a prostitute or a stripper.
Q. How does the use of imagery in this poem suggest?
Ans. This poem is probably one of the few poems where the use of imagery, especially erotic, tends to stray away the mind of the reader from the actual message that the poem conveys.
Q. How does the poet create sexual tension?
Ans. The poet creates a heightened sexual tension and urge as he himself is overpowered to go and see the stripper on the highway. He lets his curiosity wander to the limit where he suggests through imagery that the lover has his hand over the stripper’s thigh and there may be more than one man with her. The use of hyperbole in his thoughts suggests the amount of sexual feeling he wants to build in the reader’s mind before reaching an anti-climax.
Q. How does the poet bring about spirituality in the last stanza?
Ans. The stripper on the highway is suddenly portrayed by Ramanujan as spiritual rather than sexual. In just two lines, the entire focus shifts to the spiritual being, where the stripper is shown as a fusion of the male and the female, a symbol of attaining union with God. Ramanujan further clarifies this in the last verse, where he asks if it was him who was shedding his old beliefs, and was striving for a perfect coupling of the male and the female inside himself, with naked nothing, with his God, in a world without places, in a place where only spiritual being dominates and not physical.
Q. What according to the poet is Nirguna?
Ans. Nirguna is essentially a state of such devotion to God where the worshiper becomes a part of his God and unites with him. One has to understand that to attain nirguna, a person ceases to have any material form. There is no physical being, just unity with God. A very closely related concept is that of ardhnarishwar, a fusion of Shiva and Parvati.
Ardhnarishwar is symbolic of totality and completeness that comes about only after the male and the female merge. It is a concept that says that every person has spiritual elements of both genders, which are beyond the gender of the person’s physical body. Once a person strikes a balance between the male and the female sides of his/her mind, then he/she reaches the state of totality, which is beyond his/her physical body. This state of mind, which transcends above the physical gender of a person, is required to attain Ninguna