Poetry Study Aid: A River: A.K.Ramanujan

A River 
 A.K. Ramanujan
The poem A River by A.K.
Ramanujan is a tour de force of
impressive potency and insightful philosophy and yet a poem characterised by
its graceful lucidity and finely honed criticism. Through the poem A River, the poet raises the question of
an artist’s commitment to the society.

In this poem, the poet has compared and contrasted the mind-set of
the old poets and those of the new poets to human misery. Both the poets are
apathetic to human sorrow and suffering. Their poetry does not mirror the
miseries of the human beings; on the other hand they are concerned with the
themes that are far away from the stark reality before them. They write about
the beauty of the river in full flood completely ignoring the devastation and
human tragedy wreaked by this beastly force.

In this poem, the poet
refers to the river Vaikai which flows through the city of Madurai. Madurai,
reputed for its rich cultural and spiritual heritage, is a well known city in
Tamil Nadu. In the poem A River the
poet presents two strikingly contrasting pictures of the river: a vivid picture
of the river in the summer season and the river in its full flow when the
floods arrive with devastating fury.
In the summer, the
river is almost barren and arid. Only a very thin stream of water flows
revealing the sand ribs on the bed of the river. There is also the picture of
the river in the monsoon season, flooded and with its immense destructive power
yet startlingly beautiful in its majestic flow.
Both the old and the new
poets have celebrated the beauty of the flooded river but they were not alive
to or sympathetic with human suffering caused by the monstrous flood.
The poet-visitor, a modern poet probably
Ramanujan himself, visits Madurai
when the Vaikai is in flood. He was extremely shaken by the dismal scene of
utter destruction caused by the river to life and property all around. He is
even more stunned by the insensitive attitude and the complete unconcern of the
city poets, both old and new, towards this tragic situation of human suffering
and fatality. He was distraught that they ‘sang only of the floods’ when they
should have rather tried to alleviate the people of their miserable state.
Being a realist himself, he takes a dig at these city poets for dodging reality
and attempting to flee into a made-up world of fantasy and fancy.
The poem A
River
illustrates many
significant features of Ramanujan’s poetry, such as his adept linking of the
past and the present so as to introduce the idea of continuity, his effortless
depiction of the typical Indian surroundings. The use of wit, irony and humour,
and dramatic imagery is distinctive of his style.
Question 1
In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and
temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women’s hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with
patches
of repair all over them
1.     Which river is mentioned in the extract? What is
Madurai reputed for? What was the subject of the poets of Madurai?
The river Vaikai which flows through the
ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is mentioned in the extract. Madurai is famous
for its spiritual, literary and cultural heritage; its magnificent city with
its numerous impressive temples built by the kings that ruled Madurai in the
past.
The poets of Madurai, its minstrels,
wrote and sang eulogies of its marvelous temples and its magnificent cites.
In a way these eulogies can be deemed
as eulogies of the kings who built these temples and cities and patronized the literati. 
2.     What do the images of the river drying
to a trickle and the sand ribs suggest?
The river drying to a
trickle conveys the scorching heat of summer that dries up everything and makes
life unbearably miserable with the accompanying famine and starvation.
The dried river exposes
the sand dunes at the bottom of the river and they bring to our mind the
skeletal rib cages of a starved human being.
Both the images bring
out the ugly aspect of the dried up river that brings drought, which in turn
causes gruesome misery and starvation. 
Human suffering caused by the drought is suggested by the river drying
to a trickle exposing the bone-dry expanse of the sand dunes.
3.     What do the straw and women’s hair do? What do they signify?
The straw and women’s hair choke or block
the watergates under the bridges which have patches of repair all over them.
The three images -of the straw and women’s hair and the bridges in
disrepair -together create a scenario of filth and wretchedness which the
flowing river has masked. However, the dry river bares and exposes the ugliness
that lies underneath.
The poet may be suggesting the attempt of the poets to hide or
callously ignore the stark and harsh social reality by writing poems of cities
and temples.

Question 2

the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.
1.    
How does the poet describe the stones or
boulders at the bottom of the river? To what does he compare them? Why?
Using the figure of speech simile, the
poet compares the wet stones to sleepy crocodiles and the dry boulders to
shaved buffalos.
The sleepy  voracious crocodiles  hint at the impending disaster because of the
unhygienic and polluted environment. Probably, the disaster has already
occurred because the poet evokes the image of shaven buffalos. In all
probability, the buffalos have lost all their hair because of some fatal
disease caused by the contaminated water and the environment.
2.    
Bring out the irony in the last line of the
extract: The poets only sang of the
floods
.
The poet paints a picture of disaster and ruin by presenting the dried
river in summer and the likely consequence of the unhealthy environment on man
and beast. However, both the old and the new poets are apathetic to the bleak
and harsh reality around them. Ironically these poets totally ignore the misery
around them and write about the romance of the river in flood.
Question 3
He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

1.    
Who is referred to as ‘He’ here? Where is he
now” Why?
He is a visitor to the city of Madurai who has gone there
to see the river Vaikai in flood. He can be a modern poet, probably the poet
Ramanujan himself.
Poets have romanticized the beauty of
the river Vaikai in flood and he had gone there to observe the beauty of the
flooded river.
2.    
What were the destructions caused by the river?
What was the reaction of the people towards this tragic occurrence?
The poet says
that the monstrous flood had carried away three village houses, a pregnant
woman and a pair of cows. These images signify the terrible loss of property (three
village houses], enormous loss of human life (a pregnant woman) as well as the
loss of villagers’ livelihood (a pair of cows).
The people were
apathetic toward the tragic destruction caused by the flood; they talked about superfluous
matters like the exact number of cobbled steps run over by the flood or about
the gradual rising of water in the river. The use of phrase ‘as usual’ suggests the familiarity of
the villagers with the havoc caused by the flood. The flood has become a usual annual
event and the villagers have become immune to its destructive fury.
3.    
Comment on the lines: a couple of cows/   named Gopi
and Brinda as usual
The poet had nowhere mentioned the name of any human individual but he
gives the cows names of divine figures. This is to convey the importance of the
cows to the villagers; the cows are sacred to the villagers and also their main
source of livelihood.
Question
4
Read the following extract and answer the questions that
follow:
He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
1.    
Explain:
the river has water
enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
Both the old
and the new poets thought that the river can be the subject of poetry only when
it is in flood.
2.    
How do you react to
the poet’s description of the unborn twins kicking at blank walls of the womb?
The poet here
depicts a harrowing picture of human struggle and its futility. The twins are
frantically kicking at the wall of the womb of the pregnant women to escape
from their awful condition. However, the struggle is futile. They also drown
along with their mother. The scene is too deep for tears.
In a way, the
poet implies that for the common man the struggle starts even before his birth
and there is no escape from the bleak and dreary life he has to face in the
world.
3.     What
do you infer from the following lines:
expecting
identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
The
pregnant woman might have dreamt about the unborn children and might have had
great hopes and aspiration of them. The drowning of the pregnant women signifies
the drowning of the hopes and aspiration about the ordinary people which are
shattered by the tragic flood.
4.    
Comment on the theme
of the poem.
The theme
of the poem is the insensitive attitude and the complete unconcern of the city
poets, both the old and the new, towards the tragic situation of human
suffering and fatality. We are distraught that they ‘sang only of the floods’
when they should have rather tried to alleviate the people of their miserable state.
The poem
also raises the question of t
he commitment of a
poet or artist towards the society.