The Imperishable Intellectual Jewel: Remembering A.K. Ramanujan 24 Years After His Death

Surrounded by singular ideas of nation, person and faith, it is Ramanujan's soft voice insisting on plurality and the particular we must strive to hear.

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993). Credit: Wikipedia

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993). Credit: Wikipedia

In April this year, I was back at the University of Chicago, where I studied under A.K. Ramanujan in the 1980s. We were gathered to celebrate 60 years of the study of South Asia at the university and it was a grand reunion of faculty and students across generations and across disciplines. Many of us who had studied there were now teachers in our own right, but each of us had returned to honour the place and the people that had made us who we are.

No one was remembered with more admiration that weekend than Ramanujan. In all the speeches and the talks and the anecdotal histories and the informally shared memories, ‘Raman’ was mentioned with affection, with respect and with the speaker’s sense of sheer good fortune for having known the man and been in his classroom. In the 30 years that he taught at Chicago (and elsewhere for shorter periods), Ramanujan influenced generations of scholars in literature, history and anthropology, effectively initiated and sustained an ideology of translation and changed both the form and the content of South Asian studies in the American academy. Alongside his scholarly work, he remained a poet, writing about identity and displacement, about work and play, about the human heart and it’s carnal sheath, the body.

No one ever forgets the exhilaration of reading Ramanujan’s translations of Tamil sangam poetry for the first time – your hair stands on end, your hands begin to shake, your heart leaps. You know at once that you are in the presence of genius: not simply the genius of the original work but also the genius of its rendering into English. You believe these translations were created just for you, that the images shine brightest in your mind’s eye, that the rise and fall of the rhythms measures your heart beat more closely than it does anyone else’s. Soon, you begin to believe that the poems were written yesterday, in your language, that they were, in fact, written for you. Ramanujan’s translations do not ‘carry over’ as the Latin root of the word suggests. Rather, his unique talent as a translator lay in turning the boundaries between languages and cultures into what he called (in another context) ‘permeable membranes,’ diaphanous films which allowed ideas and constructs to pass through them, picking up, reflecting and refracting words and images as they travelled to the other linguistic shore.

Ramanujan used to say that he translated impressionistically at first, creating a sense of the poem for himself, seeking its spirit before he captured its letter. Then, in subsequent drafts, he would chip away at his own impressions, moving backwards, closer and closer to the literal words and images with which the poem spoke in its own language. He encouraged us to translate without fear, to push back against the source language rather than forward into the target language. He made us secure in the confidence that the words we needed would find us and not the other way around. As the universe of translations from Indian languages opens up with the Murty Library and other publishing projects, this is a paradigm we need to embrace if we are to do any kind of justice to the strength and beauty of these works that lie within our reach.

Through his translations and essays, Ramanujan reminded the academy that there was much more to the study and understanding of the subcontinent than Sanskrit and elite Brahminical traditions, far more was needed than the Orientalist lens that focused on its religious and spiritual traditions. His presentations of literature from Tamil and then Kannada expanded the idea of the ‘classical’ and his interest in oral narratives – folk tales, songs, riddles and even jokes – persuaded us to seek and acknowledge the multiple wisdoms of a culture that find expression in the so-called ‘little tradition’. For him, the knowledge of world that women held and shared in their songs and kitchen stories is as vital as the systems of philosophy and metaphysics created by men. As his students, we were all subjected to the gentle but probing question, “Tell me a story that you have only heard, not read.”

A prism for the truth 

Most importantly, Ramanujan taught us to think in the plural and not in the singular. He insisted that South Asia had traditions and literatures that sometimes complemented and sometimes challenged each other and that neither the complement nor the challenge was a problem. He could say this because he himself constantly used an insight from one of his fields of study to illuminate another. For example, his training in linguistics made him familiar with the idea of context-sensitive grammars.

Ramanujan put that idea to work in a poetic and existential perception of the individual, suggesting in his seminal essay, “Is There An Indian Way of Thinking”, that dharma was “context sensitive”. Dharma is not absolute like Kant’s categorical imperative. As individuals who are relational selves (wives, mothers, sisters, daughters), we choose our course of action depending on who we are at that moment.

Ramanujan's translation of 'Kuruntokai 3', from 'Form in Classical Tamil Poetry'. Credit: Twitter

Ramanujan’s translation of ‘Kuruntokai 3’, from ‘Form in Classical Tamil Poetry’. Credit: Twitter

An example like this demonstrates that Ramanujan’s work is remarkably integrated – his poems dovetail into his essays, his knowledge of structuralism gave us new ways to read the epics, his exploration of oral traditions produced the gift of “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, which goes well beyond a structuralist view of the marvelous story and becomes, instead, a manifesto for literary diversity. It stands as a reminder of the pluralism he held so dear and that underpinned his intellectual quests.

I remember, when I was writing an exam on Bhakti literature, having to work through the arguments in Ramanujan’s afterword in “Speaking of Shiva” and apply them to Kabir. I still recall my utter frustration at trying to paraphrase what Ramanujan had said. It was impossible – he had said it elegantly, he had said it succinctly. There were no further insights that I could add, no sweeter turn of phrase, no incomplete or undernourished thought. The only choice was to quote him. Each time I read something by him, I was struck by how clear, how useful, how imperishable it is. Many years ago, Wendy Doniger referred to Ramanujan as the “jewel in the crown of South Asia at Chicago”. I believe that now, it is his intellectual legacy that comes to us as jewels, insights that are cut and polished to sparkle, their lustre throwing light on whatever surrounds them.

Ramanujan also bequeathed us a politics of culture – how to read and listen and write such that one language is not considered more naturally literary than another, that male voices, however loud, are not more important than female ones, that a Brahmin’s view of the world is not more valid than that of a Dalit, that there is never one version of a story nor is one version more true than another.

Ramanujan was a small man with a soft voice, who suggested and persuaded rather than argued. Surrounded as we are by the pressure to conform to single ideas of nation, person and faith, it is that soft voice we must strive to hear. It whispers that anything of true worth is found in difference, in how we relate the particular to the universal and not the other way around.