Journeys | Life and work of a writer who left mark on several genres

Going through a selection of Ramanujan’s diary, one wonders not only at the entries included, but also about the ones left out

Journeys book review, AK Ramanujan, R Ananthamurthy, Three Hundred Ramayanas, The Indian Oedipus
The diary is the most intimate but could also be the most treacherous form of writing.

An entry in AK Ramanujan’s diary in 1993, the year he died, has a quote of CS Lewis: “To write a love sonnet, you must be not only in love with a woman but be in love with a sonnet.” It epitomises the life and work of a multilingual writer who left his mark on several genres, from poetry to translations and folklores. The man who translated UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, wrote influential essays like Three Hundred Ramayanas and The Indian Oedipus, and was a major voice of India in American academia.

Journey: A Poet’s Diary is a selection of his diaries and journals he maintained throughout his life, but never published. The volume also has many letters and poems that found their way to his diaries. Edited by his son Krishna Ramanujan and Spanish scholar Guillermo Rodriguez, the selection is made from his personal files and papers archived at the Joseph Regenstein Library in Chicago University, and covers the span from 1949 to his death in 1993.
An October 1976 diary entry reflects his desire to get them published so that “the private may find a place in larger discussion”, but the diaries always remained unpublished. He wrote these words as notes to himself, “with no pretensions of style or scholarship, but as explorations”. “I maintained the journal,” he writes, to “form my thoughts, and to see what I was looking at, to listen to what I was hearing.”

The diary is the most intimate but could also be the most treacherous form of writing. A diary writer wants to believe, wants others to believe, that he is trading in honesty and a transparent introspection, but he often ends up, rather unsuspectingly, becoming pretentious and righteous. What one chooses to reveal may carry many layers of what one has carefully concealed.

Ramanujan was not unaware of this conflict, as an October 5, 1980 diary candidly records an exchange with his wife Molly Daniels. “Molly said she’d read much of my diary (don’t know when) and checked against what I said to her and found me a liar. Curious situation: Should one write a diary to suit a possible snooper, a reader over your shoulder? Tolstoy and Sophia are supposed to have kept two diaries, one for each other’s spying (and to outrage the other when he/she does), the other truly private. I’m going to contrive to write what I think and feel. For the first honesty is with oneself. And I what I don’t put down, vanishes.”

The question about the unsaid or the unrevealed about Ramanujan’s diaries assumes more prominence given that it’s a selection made by the editors from a vast collection of personal papers. One doesn’t know what all has been left out and couldn’t find a place in the edited draft. A reader often gets a sense that it may well include many probing moments of introspection.

About his experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries late one night, Teju Cole once wrote: “I went to sleep in the glare of her words. It was late, around three. I slept dreamlessly. When I woke up, there was a grey veil right across the visual field of my left eye. Was I like those highly suggestible people who, out of sympathy with something written, drift into an area of darkness?” he wondered.

Cole is not alone. It’s the strength of the diary as a literary genre that it instantly forms a close relation with the reader. The question Ramanujan asks — “Would it be possible to go the way of Rilke, make poetry out of one’s continuous hunger, one’s continuous sense of absence?” — resonates within the reader. Or this lovely entry of December 30, 1986: “Arrived in Bangalore. Delightful to know the names of so many trees.”

Ramanujan also meticulously recorded his dreams. A dream if not registered immediately gets blurred, lost in the maze of memory. Among the many dreams that his diaries contain this one is perhaps the most striking: “A half-dream — that Tipu Sultan had a habit of dancing by himself in full regalia, with musicians.”

Now, how does one classify a man who records his dream of Tipu, ponders over the form of poetry, wants to maintain two diaries, one for himself and the other for a possible snooper? Perhaps he answered it himself in his diary of October 29, 1987: “I always begin with a model I admire, or even an imaginary one, then develop my own style. That’s why I’m a translator of classics.”A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla

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First published on: 09-06-2019 at 03:59 IST