The great Indian house, stationary, offering shelter to its inhabitants, was no less than a monster said the poet.
With its welcoming smile and thousand arms it ushered the foreigners to come and stay and to become one with its culture – resistance withered itself away gradually. The time of Rajas, Shahanshahs, travellers, envoys, merchant kings, queens all lived and looted and loved this great Indian house.
This monster’s burning red eyes never blinked said the poet, not even when its inhabitants, its children set each other on fire. It swallowed these deaths, warmly, and sang lost songs.
Who met this monster once couldn’t leave, those who left, came back, every single time, as matter or chatter.
The monster – and so maybe for the want of a better word – fits and breaks the spectrum simultaneously, it is a monster but not evil or kind, not entirely, said the poet.
Reminiscing, hating and loving it, the poet’s poem tells that the great Indian house, with all its filthy incongruities and slow, glossy loveliness, is alive, apparently stationary, yet on the move, grappling impalpably with every idea and action that it warmly, blindly has gathered, is gathering.
The great Indian house when hit by a tempestuous storm, though handling it eventually, even now follows the tradition of first welcoming and serving it hot tea.
A modernist bilingual poet, linguist, essayist, folklorist, philologist, translator and scholar, A. K Ramanujan ‘wrote of the home left behind with a remote passion and irony’. Born in Mysore, Ramanujan moved to the US in the 1960s; settled there, he would remark to friends that he was the hyphen between Indo-American.
His translation of the Kannada novel Samskara and a Tamil bhakti poetry, Speaking of Siva, into English and the essays like ‘Who needs folklore?’ and ‘Is there an Indian way of thinking?’ allowed the readers to see regional literature in a new light.
The following poem, that inspired this blog post, appeared in Ramanujan’s second collection of poems titled ‘Relations‘ in 1971.
Small-scale Reflections on a Great House
A K Ramanujan
Sometimes I think that nothing
that ever comes into this house
goes out. Things that come in everyday
to lose themselves among other things
lost long ago among
other things lost long ago;
lame wandering cows from nowhere
have been known to be tethered,
given a name, encouraged
to get pregnant in the broad daylight
of the street under the elders’
supervision, the girls hiding
behind windows with holes in them.
Unread library books
usually mature in two weeks
and begin to lay a row
of little eggs in the ledgers
for fines, as silverfish
in the old man’s office room
breed dynasties among long legal words
in the succulence
of Victorian parchment.
Neighbours’ dishes brought up
with the greasy sweets they made
all night the day before yesterday
for the wedding anniversary of a god,
never leave the house they enter,
like the servants, the phonographs,
the epilepsies in the blood,
sons-in-law who quite forget
their mothers, but stay to check
accounts or teach arithmetic to nieces,
or the women who come as wives
from houses open on one side
to rising suns, on another
to the setting, accustomed
to wait and to yield to monsoons
in the mountains’ calendar
beating through the hanging banana leaves
And also anything that goes out
will come back, processed and often
with long bills attached,
like the hooped bales of cotton
shipped off to invisible Manchesters
and brought back milled and folded
for a price, cloth for our days’
middle-class loins, and muslin
for our richer nights. Letters mailed
have a way of finding their way back
with many re-directions to wrong
addresses and red ink-marks
earned in Tiruvalla and Sialkot.
And ideas behave like rumours,
once casually mentioned somewhere
they come back to the door as prodigies
born to prodigal fathers, with eyes
that vaguely look like our own,
like what Uncle said the other day:
that every Plotinus we read
is what some Alexander looted
between the malarial rivers.
A beggar once came with a violin
to croak out a prostitute song
that our voiceless cook sang
all the time in our backyard.
Nothing stays out: daughters
get married to short-lived idiots;
sons who run away come back
in grand children who recite Sanskrit
to approving old men, or bring
betel nuts for visiting uncles
who keep them gaping with
anecdotes of unseen fathers,
or to bring Ganges water
in a copper pot
for the last of the dying
ancestors’ rattle in the throat.
And though many times from everywhere,
recently only twice:
once in nineteen-forty-three
from as far as the Sahara,
half -gnawed by desert foxes,
and lately from somewhere
in the north, a nephew with stripes
on his shoulder was called
an incident on the border
and was brought back in plane
and train and military truck
even before the telegrams reached,
on a perfectly good