MANY RAMAYANAS AND ONE RAMAN
Legend has it that the Kannada poet Kumaravyasa, writing in the 15th century, decided to compose a Mahabharata because he could hear the cosmic serpent who holds up the earth groaning under the weight of far too many Ramayana poets. So far, no one has been outraged by his “insensitive” suggestion that there are many Ramayanas, too many Ramayanas, in fact. We haven’t stopped reading Kumaravyasa’s magnificent poem because of what he said. Five hundred years later, the work of A.K. Ramanujan, Kumaravyasa’s literary descendent, has been removed from a university syllabus for saying the same thing.
Ramanujan was my teacher for six years when I studied at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. A more gentle and thoughtful scholar, a man more circumspect and respectful towards the diverse materials that he encountered in the course of his work, would be hard to find. Ramanujan’s life, when I knew him, was entirely a life of the mind. He wrote his poetry, he made his translations, he taught his students, he thought about narratives. Nothing excited him more than one more story: one that he had not heard before, one that was a variant on a story that he already knew, one that came from a marginalised language or culture. It could only be Ramanujan who, with his insatiable curiosity, his encyclopaedic mind and his unique genius to see structural and emotional connections where the rest of us were blind and deaf, could write an essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.
Ramanujan was trained in linguistics and taught at the exquisite but delicate nexus between language and literature. He brought his linguistics to bear on what we read together as literature and equally so, he brought his sensitivity as a poet and translator to discussions about grammar and syntax. He was alive to the nuances of language and literature like no one else I have ever known. Often, he would ask, earnestly, “Tell me a story. Tell me a story that you have only heard, not one that you have read.” He taught a generation of students never to disregard a variant in dialect or a different version of a story—for such disturbances in an otherwise organised and canonical system could only enrich our understanding of what had become the (hegemonic) “original”.
I think Ramanujan, my teacher and the public intellectual, would have been perplexed to find his essay about the literary traditions of the Ramayana being taught in a History department. I think he would have been surprised to learn that he himself had been transformed into an historian by some parts of the media. Most importantly, I think he would have been devastated that feats of the poetic imagination that he believed to be so profoundly liberating (and enlightening), those flights of fancy where truth lies not in fact but in metaphor, had been reduced to offensive and defensive positions between liberal and illiberal scholars. It would have crushed him to know that his beloved Ramayana, that wellspring of joyous pluralism and vibrant diversity that informs the cultures of the sub-continent and beyond, has been confined in the straitjackets and corsets of the Right and the Left, the religious and the secular, the historical and the literary.
A.K. Ramanujan died in 1993. Twenty-eight years ago, I wrote an obituary for my teacher, Raman. I felt a thudding hollowness at the time, a sense of personal loss for a gentle man in a wrinkled grey suit, a small man with a soft voice and a large head that seemed to strain to hold his enormous mind in place. Then, I consoled myself with the thought that his work would live on, that his remarkable insights would stay with us, that his spirit of inquiry and his grace with stories of all kinds would continue to inspire us to think more deeply and widely about what we read, whether secular or religious, classical or folk. Today, I find myself writing an obituary for his spirit. This is no longer only my loss—the murder of Ramanujan’s way of thinking impoverishes us all.
I think Ramanujan, my teacher and the public intellectual, would have been devastated that feats of the poetic imagination that he believed to be so profoundly liberating had been reduced to offensive and defensive positions between liberal and illiberal scholars.