Foreword: AK Ramanujan’s ‘Soma’ gives mother tongues the formidable heft of classics

In his foreword for ‘Soma’, a posthumous collection of poems by AK Ramanujan, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra delves into how the late poet was “his own best archivist” and we, as his readers, the beneficiaries.
The book cover of Soma
The book cover of Soma
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Foreword by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

AK Ramanujan died suddenly at sixty-four, much work still ahead of him. A lot of it had been published while he was alive but plenty remained in various stages of completion in his papers, and of the Collected Essays (1999), he had made an outline. Since then, ‘as if long deep / burial had made them hasty / / for birth and season’, several posthumous volumes have appeared, including Journeys: A Poet’s Diary (2019) and, now, Soma. He was his own best archivist and we, his readers, are the beneficiaries.

In 1986, when Second Sight came out, Arun Kolatkar jotted down a few lines and deposited the note in an envelope where he kept his undated thoughts. We had been talking about Ramanujan’s new book, which is how I am able to date the note. It was discovered after Kolatkar’s death and was published, along with several other writings, in an appendix to his Collected Poems in English (2010). The note, unusual because Kolatkar seldom expressed an opinion on poets, in public or private, reads:

Will the real Ramanujan please stand up
there are several of them as you know

A.K. Ramanujan is a legion rather than an individual

There is a multitude of Ramanujans
the poet of course, the translator, the folklorist

There are any number of A.K. Ramanujans
I am personally acquainted/familiar with at least 3 of them
and love ’em all

I don’t claim to know all of them

I wonder whether the Real Ramanujan expresses himself
through his translations (rather than through his poems)

Ramanujan and his doubles

A parallel discovery has been Ramanujan’s allusion, in ‘When Soma is abroad’, written in 1979, to Kolatkar’s Jejuri (1977):

When Soma is abroad
dialect and jargon glow.

Mother-tongues wear classics on their sleeves,
father tongues loosen,
schoolbook rules run into love and war,
metres breathe, a mountain breeze
or lion cubs
around a majestic father-theme.

Soma, blow again on the coals of Ezekiel’s lips,
make chariots of war pirouette among arrows,
bring medicine men in Delhi offices the red robes of shamans,
dawn again on the stones of Jejuri
and circle the squares of Konarak.

This is the only time when Ramanujan, in a poem, names his contemporaries either directly (Nissim Ezekiel) or by implication (Arun Kolatkar, Jayanta Mahapatra). The prayer to Soma is for them — the verbs ‘blow’, ‘make’, ‘bring’, ‘dawn’ and ‘circle’ at the beginning of each line emphasize this—as much as it is for himself. May the substance or spirit that is being invoked continue to transform those who have once known its disruptive, rule-defying presence.

In ‘Men, Women, and Saints’, where, in one of the many meanings it has for him, ‘Soma . . . is psychedelic, mind-blowing, not exactly social—probably a sacred mushroom.’ Ramanujan gives the example of the Vīraśaiva poet–saints of the sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era who, unlike the Buddha, ‘do not appear alone, they seem to appear in droves, in interacting groups of three or four in these early times’. In Ezekiel, Mahapatra, Ramanujan and Kolatkar, born within seven
years of each other, we have a similar ‘drove’ of poets in what were for Indian poetry in English ‘early times’.

Poets tend to squirrel away everything they write.

Whatever passes through their inquisitive minds is of interest to them. A poem that has been put aside could have a line or an image that is usable later. They can themselves be surprised by what they almost threw away. Sometimes all that is needed is a change of title to transform a poem permanently. ‘Death and the Good Citizen’ will remain a poem from Second Sight, though its birth name was ‘Soma: he thinks of leaving his body (to a hospital)’.

Whether the drafts, fragments and rejected pieces — those that did not quite make it into print while the poet was alive — are of interest to anyone is a different matter. Is it better to leave unused material alone, to be looked at forensically, later if at all? Basil Bunting thought so. Asked by R.B. Woodings, Faber’s editorial director, to endorse his mentor Ezra Pound’s Collected Early Poems, he wrote: 

‘No doubt it is fitting that maggots consume us in the end, or at least the rubbish we scatter as we go; but I’d rather leave the lid on my dustbin and the earth on my friend’s graves . . . Piety takes curious forms: the toenail clippings of Saint What’s His Name are revered. I don’t think religion is much advanced by that.’

What is on offer here in this book? Are we being fobbed off with the toenail clippings of Saint Ramanujan? Or are we being offered a window into A.K. Ramanujan’s workshop where you can hear the clang of metal, the noise of cutting wheels, the intense heat of the furnace, and see the heap of poems that appear discarded but are actually finished? Among them is a poem that has the head of an original poem and the body of a translation, a composite beast such as you come across in Mughal miniatures, which might be a useful way of looking at Ramanujan’s work as a whole. The head and the body are so fused that you can only tell them apart because one is in roman, the other in italics, and there is a tail-like footnote. Paradoxically, unlike those in miniature painting, Ramanujan’s composite beast is single-specied:

Soma, I said, is no Visnu
Soma, I said, is no Visnu
But Visnu can play Soma,
enter the nests of flesh
to make them sing:
beware, your life is in danger:
the lord of gardens is a thief,
a cheat,
master of illusions;
he came to me,
a wizard with words
sneaked into my body,
my breath,
with bystanders looking on
but seeing nothing,
he consumed me
life and limb,
and filled me,
made me over
into himself

The footnote tells us that the first four lines are Ramanujan’s and the rest of the poem is Nammāḻvār’s, taken from Ramanujan’s Hymns for the Drowning (1981).

Quotations had been part of Ramanujan’s repertoire from the beginning. He embeds a phrase, ‘eye-deep’, from Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in the title poem of his first book, The Striders (1966), named for the New England water insect: ‘This bug sits / on a landslide of lights / and drowns eye- / deep / into its tiny strip / of sky.’ The phrase resurfaces in Chicago Zen: ‘and you drown, eyes open, / / towards the Indies, the antipodes’.

Similarly, in ‘On discovering that Soma is a mushroom’, he slips in a probing, libidinous line from John Donne:

[I] stand in Soma, warm perishing body
in a cold silver river, the water
is a lover’s hand,
in, on, below, between . . .
The hand will remain warm to the last:
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

(John Donne, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’)

As often in Ramanujan, one thing flows into another. ‘On discovering that Soma is a mushroom’ is from 1979, and if you turn to the entry for 24 November 1979 in Journeys you find: ‘In the last few months I’ve been teaching with D[avid] Grene Shakespeare’s sonnets and Donne’s poems. I first read them in college, knew some by heart. I seem to understand them now as I didn’t then.’

Soma is the breath of poetry. It loosens the father tongues, Sanskrit and English, and gives the mother tongues, Tamil and Kannada, the easy, formidable heft of the classics, some of which Ramanujan then translated into a father tongue. A tenth-century mystical poet like Nammāḻvār gets a twentieth-century makeover just as much as English, through translation, gains a new expressive tool. The act of translation is turned into a shamanistic ritual or performance in which the lines have bloodshot eyes and their movement, if you notice the streaky line breaks, is frenzied.

For poets, the state of being in Soma is to be in a state of ecstasy when the dull familiarity that encrusts the commonplace melts away to reveal the ‘hard gemlike flame’ (the phrase is Walter Pater’s) that the most ordinary things possess. Ramanujan’s ‘things’ have possessed this quality from the beginning. ‘A Poem of Particulars’ is from The Striders, its last poem:

In our city markets
I have often seen a wicker basket
upon its single, ample
its rattan pattern filled
with another
bubble-bed pattern of oranges:
pellmell piled
not one with a stain,
some thick-painted green all over,
with just a finger-print
of green . . .

‘[I]t is only the roughness of the eye,’ Pater goes on to say in The Renaissance (1873), ‘that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike’. Ramanujan particularizes ecstatically, as though intoxicated, making each municipal orange, along with the wicker basket holding them, sing. Hence the prayer to Soma—‘Soma, blow again . . .’ and hence, in Journeys, the diary entry of 16 June 1993, ‘To write continuously like a trickle stream of thick honey from a slanted bottle.’ But hence, too, the warning ‘[B]eware, your life is in danger.’ The warning is made both playfully and in earnest. Poet–saints, take Kabir and Tukaram for example, have often been suspected of being crazy, sometimes by their immediate families. One of the poems in Hymns for the Drowning is titled ‘God’s Idiots’. The idiots live precariously and make the lives of those around them precarious as well.

When someone like Ramanujan translates, it is often his own poem he’s composing by other means. Through another’s he chances upon his voice, and the two had become intertwined. Dyed in a singular colour, you cannot tell them apart. ‘In 1968’, he writes in Journeys:

I finished translating a group of iconoclastic poems from the tenth to the twelfth century called vacanas. I’d begun reading them when I was sixteen and they fitted my own inchoate impulses against caste, the patriarchal oppression of women (especially my mother and sisters), the great division of rich and poor, and even the learned and the illiterate. The following poem was a centrepiece:

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head
a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

                                                 (Basavanna 820) 

The Basavanna poem could well be the centrepiece of Ramanujan’s entire work and also of the way he worked. ‘He functioned best,’ Molly Daniels–Ramanujan tells us, ‘with multiple projects, texts, disciplines, languages, connections, and deadlines.’ He could do with little sleep, was restless and was constantly ‘moving’, even, it appears, in death. She describes the moment: ‘[H]is body was ice-cold, longer, leaner, and very still. His energy was concentrated on his brow as he chased a thought in flight.’

In a 1982 interview with Ayyappa Paniker, Ramanujan spoke of his ‘new book of poems in English’, which he was going to call Soma. The Soma poems, which had occupied him through the 1970s up to the early 1980s, are here seen for the first time, or, if met with before in whole or part in Second Sight, Hymns for the Drowning or Journeys, are seen in the context they were originally meant to be seen in. To have left them interred in boxes in a library would have meant, among other things, losing a critical moment of our literary history.

Excerpted from ‘Soma: Poems by AK Ramanujan’, with permission from Penguin India. Soma: Poems is available at

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