Saturday, June 1, 2019

Journeys with AK Ramanujan

A version of this was in Outlook

Fascinating and illuminating. These are the words that come to mind even as I’m just about a quarter-way through Journeys: A Poet’s Diary by A.K. Ramanujan, and edited by Krishna Ramanujan and Guillermo Rodriguez. Fascinating, because reading this book is almost like watching a live-stream from within a creative, brilliant mind, seeing thoughts as they form and evolve or dissipate. Illuminating, because it offers tantalising glimpses of the author's inner world while also reinforcing, as it were, that our humanity is shared; that genius or not, labourer or scholar, the things we worry about, obsess over and obtain joy from are largely the same.
Pioneering poet, translator, folklorist, essayist and scholar. For the past five-odd decades Ramanujan has been all these, but also a beacon for India’s literary community. Growing up in Mysore, he taught English literature in colleges across southern India before traveling to the US in his early 30s as a Fulbright Scholar, going on to pursue a career as an academic at the University of Chicago.
He wrote in Kannada and English and translated, primarily, from Tamil and Kannada into English. During his lifetime, he published several poetry collections in English and Kannada, translations of ancient Tamil poetry and medieval Kannada poetry and a translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, besides editing a collection of folk tales from across India. Recognition for his work includes a Padma Shri and a MacArthur Fellowship. 
 Ironically, as the book reveals, despite his significant accomplishments, Ramanujan seems to have been ridden with self-doubt and existential angst through much of his adult life. It is fascinating to see how someone who was so prolific and, dare I say, successful, write in 1978, “Feel imprisoned in the role of teacher/writer – the former comes easier than the latter.” Or — heartbreakingly — write after winning the MacArthur Fellowship, “One also wishes that with the money came also a package of more talent, intelligence.”
There’s also an often expressed yearning to belong, beset in equal measure by the desire to be different. As he writes in an early version of the poem ‘Self-portrait’, published in his first collection The Striders:
“I resemble everyone
but myself,
and sometimes see
in mirrors
the portrait of a stranger,
date unknown,
despite the well-known laws
of optics.”
But it’s not as if Ramanujan was unaware of his self-doubt and dissatisfaction and also, perhaps, how baffling it was. As he writes in March 1989, “Though I’ve been amply rewarded and befriended, was never truly poor, lonely, or worked in places or with people that didn’t appreciate me… Yet why did I feel miserable, as I’ve done all through these years, while all along I worked very well, read and wrote, had friends?”
Ramanujan possibly never expected others to be reading his journal and encounter his innermost thoughts. But it is these intimate thoughts — the self-doubt; the search for meaning, purpose, acceptance and acclaim; the creative process; and so on — that humanise this literary colossus and help us relate to him as a human being. And that, I believe, is the book’s primary success.  
With an affectionate foreword by Girish Karnad, who knew the writer as a mentor and friend, and introductions by the two editors, one of whom is Ramanujan’s son, Journeys is an eclectic selection; not just in terms of form, but also in terms of the emotions explored and ideas expressed. Based on the A.K. Ramanujan Papers maintained in the University of Chicago, it covers the writer’s life from the mid-1940s to the weeks before his death in July 1993.
The book includes unpublished prose including diaries, journals, dreams, short stories; unpublished poetry ranging from experimental lines and rough drafts to revised and polished drafts; and published poems, in an effort to show how Ramanujan worked and how his ideas led to finished poems. As Rodriguez writes in his introduction, it “brings together for the first time a selection of the unpublished diaries and journals that trace a journey - in his own voice – as a writer and poet, and his maturing as a unique intellectual luminary.”  
Understandably, poetry is a constant. A thread that runs through the book. There are familiar, published, poems like ‘The Striders’ from his eponymously titled book or ‘Extended Family’ from Second Sight. But there is equally powerful unpublished work such as the ‘Soma’ series believed to have been inspired by Ramanujan’s mescaline encounter or the 1978 draft of the ‘Alvar poem’ or these lines from ‘A First Flight to New York’:
“… New York – lines of fire, like
an electric heater and
green dot configurations –
vast – oceans of stars of
red yellow green, sparse,
clustered and guided into
lines, with caravans
slowing through them -
gradually plotted into
squares – as if somebody’s
nerve impulses were diagrammed
and translated into flickers
and paths and ganglions -…”
Translation, Ramanujan’s other major contribution to literature, is also a presence through the book, perhaps a slightly muted presence though. Possibly the most thought-provoking section on translation is an October 1992 entry, filled with striking thoughts such as, “Each translation creates an original; supplants and extends and often subverts what is in in another language.”
As its name implies, the book is also about Ramanujan’s journeys, some internal and some external. And compelling as they are, the internal journeys are sometimes eclipsed by the external expeditions. 
Even before we get to the formal section called ‘The journey’, Ramanujan’s journal entries on his travel within India are entertaining. But it is in ‘notes towards a journal: The journey’, a typed, unpublished document; the travel diary that covers his voyage from India to the US; and the section on his first weeks in the US that his writing is at its most delightful.
In these pages, he is a keen observer with an eye for detail, humorous (sometimes wickedly so) and filled with curiosity about the world around. And there is the ever-present poetry. The ability to make pictures with words, like this passage from his time in Paris: “The sun-tanned man in deep blue jersey and fawn corduroys standing before a huge modern painting and fitting into the quilt-work composition as if he were born for that moment, to stand before that piece which was born with a gap in the composition.” The writing here is perhaps not just an exploration of new places, cuisines, experiences, cultures and ways of thinking, but also an attempt by Ramanujan to find and situate himself in this new world.  
Expectedly, thoughts on writing as a discipline come up through the book. From the universal writerly gripe on the eternal search for new ideas, to more structured thoughts on writing, Ramanujan’s views are occasionally challenging but always stimulating. Like the conviction that writing and re-writing are part of the same process or that creation and self-criticism are not opposites. 
Even as Ramanujan’s writing sparkles, what adds additional zing to this book are the photographs scattered through it. They’re also the source of my sole quibble — some captions are tough to read for they’re in colours that bleed into the black and white images. 
What makes Journeys: A Poet’s Diary truly remarkable is that it is, in a sense, Ramanujan with few filters, for which his family must be appreciated. Equally, the book matters because it traces the author’s course through life, as his thoughts and writing evolve even as the person himself seems to stay relatively unchanged. It offers readers a tasting menu of his potent writing, especially his poetry, and flashes of the even more compelling ideas and thinking that crafted this writing. This is a book as much for first-time readers as it is for those who are familiar with Ramanujan’s work. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Memory: Wayanad

Getting to Wayanad can be an experience in itself. The first hour or so of the journey from Kozhikode is relatively unremarkable. Just the endless games of chicken, that are the new normal on roads in Kerala, by an assortment of vehicles. And to spice things up, the odd carcass or two of vehicles that have lost a game of chicken.   
Where things start to get really interesting is at the base of the Thamarassery churam, or Thamarassery mountain pass, through the Western Ghats. Here, the narrow road to Wayanad starts snaking up, often doubling back on itself. The traffic can be pretty crazy here too, but then there’s always the view to focus on, which is mostly appealing and often breathtaking.
You will, like me, probably be a little short of breath when you scramble up to the entrance to the Edakkal caves, about 1,200 feet above sea level. At a moderate pace, it takes about 40 minutes to walk from the base of the hill to the caves. They’re not quite what comes to mind when you think of a cave, but the engravings on the inner walls of these stone structures take you back across the centuries — all the way back to the Stone Age. And if you go very early in the morning, just when the caves open for the day and there aren’t too many other visitors around, you can, for a fleeting second or two, feel a tenuous connection to the early humans who sought shelter there.
There are more reminders of the inhabitants — early, but also more recent  — of the region in the Wayanad Heritage Museum in Ambalavayal. It’s a useful introduction to the area’s history and culture, including that of its large tribal population.
There is, of course, much more to experience in Wayanad. But for me, the caves and the museum were a tasting menu, just about enough to take in on my first visit. More fetching was the prospect of heading back to the wonderful Pepper Trail — cocooned in a coffee and spice plantation — with its 140-year-old bungalow and soothing views, all cloaked in solitude embellished by birdsong. 
And that’s just what I did; luxuriate in silence serenaded by the call of a hornbill.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Memory: Our Lady of Paris

When I first got to Paris, it was twilight on a warm Saturday in July. A delayed flight, a missed connection and the detritus of a cold had left me drained. All I wanted was a shower and a bed. But as RER B swept from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare du Nord, it was impossible to miss the Eiffel Tower, suffused in blue and gold, in the distance though my weary mind didn’t quite process it then. 
The next morning, as we exited the Metro onto Quai Saint-Michel, there was Notre-Dame de Paris across the Seine. My first proper sight of Paris or, to be pedantic, a Parisian landmark. This, perhaps, is why for me Notre-Dame immediately spells Paris; as much as the Eiffel or the Arc deTriomphe or the Centre Pompidou does.  
Crossing the road and the Pont des Coeurs we were soon part of the jostling line of visitors entering the cathedral. And on that Sunday, even as we walked in and looked around, we were reminded by the soaring voices of a choir celebrating Mass that we were in a living, breathing place of worship. A place of beauty, but also one that offered tantalising whiffs of timelessness; the sort of timelessness I sometimes felt in the sanctum sanctorum of Trivandrum’s Padmanabhaswamy temple in the quiet, un-crowded hours before dawn. 
Since that first visit, we’ve been back a few times, browsing the artists’ and booksellers’ stalls along the Quai Saint-Michel and the Quai de Montebello, scanning the racks at Shakespeare and Company on Rue de la Bucherie or just watching the world go by along the banks of the Seine, and Notre-Dame was always a reassuring presence, exuding grace.
 And that’s a presence we’ve carried with us. For Our Lady of Paris watches over us from the walls of our home, even as her gargoyles crouch on another wall, keeping an eagle-eye on me as I write this.

Monday, December 31, 2018

New York memory

New York is a city of possibilities; infinite possibilities. And for me, nothing captures that feeling more perfectly than a view of the city from up above.
Whether it’s a leaden morning, with almost no memory of the sun, or a day stuffed with sunshine and blue skies, the city mesmerises from above. And to round off the year, three favourite aerial views of New York, a city that’s grown on me; well, sort of.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Vital Signs

Turning your own ideas into words that count can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. So it can get really tricky when you need to turn someone else’s ideas into their own words. But for a writer and editor, I think that’s a challenge worth accepting.  
And so it proved to be, working with Dr M.I. Sahadulla on his memoir Vital Signs: Reflections on a Life in Medicine and Management. The most obvious benefit of working on the book was the insight it offered into the process through which a young person from Murukkumpuzha, a village (now a small town) near Thiruvananthapuram, evolved into one of Kerala’s most successful entrepreneurs.
A more important reward was the opportunity to see an outstanding clinician at work; and, of course, the lessons in entrepreneurship, managerial problem solving and professionalism that happened as Dr Sahadulla went about the routine business of running KIMS. And then, there were the master classes in thoughtfulness and warmth as he bumped into patients, doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and others in the hospital’s corridors, leaving each person feeling a little better and happier for the encounter.
All these opportunities to learn and the pleasure of spending time with a leader who is both warm and inspiring were, without a doubt, the best part of working with Dr Sahadulla. And somewhere along the way, turning his ideas into his words stopped being a challenge.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The cheesemakers of Canterbury

Cheese-wise, 2017 was a good year. I returned to several old favourites and discovered a couple of outstanding new cheeses, including a vintage cheddar (strength 5) from Tesco. My cheese discovery of the year, though, has to be Cheesemakers of Canterbury and their range of artisanal cheeses. 
It was impossible to miss the Cheesemakers of Canterbury counter on my first visit to The Goods Shed farmers’ market and food hall in Canterbury. I returned soon, for a chat with George, who manages the counter, and a taste of several of their cheeses including Ashmore Farmhouse, Ashmore Smoked, Ancient Ashmore, Gruff and Canterbury Cobble. While I enjoyed them all, the Farmhouse, Canterbury Cobble and Ancient Ashmore stood out, especially the slightly intense Ancient Ashmore. They were the cheeses that found their way into my bag and the sliver of Kent I took back home with me.