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A River A.

K, Ramanujan (19291993)

Biography

A.K. Ramanujan (19291993) was born in Mysore in 1929 and educated there. He was a
fellow at Deccan College, Poona from 195859. He got a Fulbright Fellowship and left for
U.S.A. in 1960 where he taught at the Indiana University and later at the Chicago University.
He is famous for his three volumes of poemsThe Striders (1966), Relations (1971) and
Selected Poems (1976). He holds a leading place among the Indian English poets. India and his
Indian experiences are the subject-matter of his works.

A River was published in The Striders in 1966.

Theme

In the city of Madurai, there runs through it the River Vagai, which is traditionally praised by all
the poets when it is flooded during the monsoon. They continue to ignore the suffering of the
people during the flood which causes destruction and death.

Summary

In ancient Madurai which is famous for its temples and poets, there runs through it the River
Vaigai which all the poets praise when it is flooded. In summer, the scene is ugly, which no
poet has ever described. The river dries to a trickle with sand-ribs exposed, straw and
womens hair clogging the water-gates. There are rusty bars under the bridges with patches of
repair all over them. On the river-bed, wet stones resemble sleepy crocodiles and the dry ones
look like well-shaved buffaloes relaxing in the sun.

Once, our poet, an observer, was present there for a day when floods occurred and continued
to rise inch by inch. People excitedly discussed the danger and destructionthree village
houses, a pregnant woman and two cows named Gopi and Brinda were carried off.

The new poets wrote what the old poets said about the river. They did not mention the
pregnant woman who might have been expecting identical twins kicking at the blank walls of
her womb before their birth.
Stanza 1 Explanation
In Maduraj, The poem is set in Madurai
city of temples and poets,
It is famous for its temples and poets. It was
who sang of cities and temples:
the capital of the Pandya kings and a seat of
every summer
learning.
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand, The poets wrote about cities and temples.
baring the sand ribs, straw and womens hair
In summer the heat is so scorching that the
clogging the watergates
river dries up. As it has very little water in it,
at the rusty bars
so it looks like a thin stream and looks ugly
under the bridges with patches
and unattractive.
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy The furrow lines in the sandy river-bed look
crocodiles, the dry ones like ribs on a starving human body.
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun,
Sand-ribs or ridges of sand can now be
The poets only sang of the floods.
seen on the river-bed.
Word Meanings Water-gates are the sluice gates with bars
trickle-a thin flow of water which can be opened or closed to control
baring- exposing the flow of water.
sand-ribs-ridges of sand
In summer the water level drops
clogging-blocking
water-gates-gates locked and unlocked The water- gates have not been used for
across the river to control the flow of water some time the rods of these gates have
glistening-shining rusted
lounging relaxing
Also with drop in water level all the waste of
the river has collected at these water-gates
The bridges over the water gates have
patches of repair all over them. These are
now visible with the water level going down
The wet stones sticking out from the
trickling stream shine like sleeping
crocodiles
The stones on the dry river bed look like
shaven water- buffaloes relaxing in the sun.
The poets did not write any poems on the
ugliness of the dry river. They only sang
Sand-ribs
about the beauty of the flooded river.

Stanza 2 Explanation
He was there for a day The poet (possibly of this poem itself) has
when they had the floods. gone to Madurai as a visitor.
People everywhere talked
It was the monsoon season and the river in
of the inches rising,
Madurai had got flooded.
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising People in the city discussed about the
on the bathing places, gradual rising of the flood water, inch by
and the way it carried off three village inch.
houses,
They counted the exact number of cobbled
one pregnant woman
steps covered by the water.
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual. They observed how it rose on the bathing
places.
Word Meanings They also talked about the manner in which
precise - exact three village houses were washed away by
cobbled-paved with cobblestones (smooth the river.
round stones)
They kept on talking about one pregnant
woman who was drowned by the flood in the
river.
The river also swept away two cows named
Gopi and Brinda.
The above are itemized, mentioned cursorily
as in a listthree, one, two.
The early poets and their successors tick off
the losses as mere statistics.
The destruction, suffering and human pain
caused by the flood is of no importance to
them.
Their aim, possibly is to simply record a
sensational event to capture the momentary
attention of the people.
Our poet possibly finds this attitude
shocking and callous.
This is also a comment on the Hindu
orthodoxy.
No one knows the name of the pregnant
woman but the names of the cows are
known

Stanza 3 Explanation
The new poets still quoted Our observer poet says that the thought
the old poets, but no one spoke process of the new poets is so sterile that
in verse they are satisfied by quoting from old texts
of the pregnant woman
While they sang of the river as a creative
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
force giving birth to new life, the incident of
kicking at blank walls
the pregnant woman who drowned with
even before birth.
twins in her is far away from their thoughts.
Word Meanings Singing about only the glory of the river full
verse - poetry to the brim, they fail to realize its more
kicking at blank walls - unborn baby kicking devastating impact on human life.
the walls of the mothers womb
The narrator gives us a more complete
impression of the river as destroyer as well
as preserver.

Stanza 4 Explanation
He said: He is sarcastic about the poets of yore who
the river has water enough choose only the floods to write about and
to be poetic that too merely once a year.
about only once a year
However the same river that the poets sing
and then
praise off, the moment it gets flooded,
it carries away in the first half-hour
causes misery to people
three village houses,
a couple of cows The poem presents an interesting binary
named Gopi and Brinda structure:
and one pregnant woman
new poets and old poets
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies, city of temples and poets
with different colored
diapers to tell them apart. songs of cities and temples
the flood: in the poems and as people
saw it
a couple of cows
pregnant woman with identical twins
etc
Stanza 1
In Maduraj,
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 womens hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun,
The poets only sang of the floods.

Q1. Where is Madurai? What is it famous for? Madurai is a city near Chennai.
Ans. It is famous for its temples and poets. It was the capital of the Pandya kings and a seat of
learning.

Q2. What did the poets write about?


Ans. The poets wrote about cities and temples.

Q. 3. What happens to the river every summer? Why is dries to a trickle significant?
Am. Every summer, the river dries up. It has very little water in it, so it looks like a thin stream.
The phrase dries to a trickle is significant because it reveals that in summer the heat is so
scorching that the river dries up and looks ugly and unattractive.

Q. 4. What are sand-ribs? Describe how they were formed? What do they reveal about the
weather and its effects?
Ans. Sand-ribs are ridges of sand on the exposed river-bed. Heaps of dried sand are piled up
on both sides of the thin stream. The furrow lines in the sandy river-bed look like ribs on a
starving human body.
They reveal that in summer the heat is severe and creates a drought-like situation.

Q5. What are water-gates? Why are they clogged in summer?


Ans. Water-gates are the sluice gates with bars which can be opened or closed to control the
flow of water.
In summer, due to the drop in the water level, the water- gates have not been used for some
time, so all the waste of the river has collected around the rusty rods of these gates.

Q6. Describe the bridges.


The bridges have patches of repair all over them.
Q. 7. Describe the stones on the river-bed. What atmosphere is created by the poet through
his description?
Ans. The wet stones on the river bed shine like sleeping crocodiles and the dry stones look like
shaven water- buffaloes relaxing in the sun.
The poets use of words like sleepy and lounging in the sun create an atmosphere of the
drowsy peace of the summer season in India.

Q8. Explain The poets sang only of the floods.


Ans. The poets did not write any poems on the reality of the dry unattractive river. They only
sang about the beauty of the flooded river.

Stanza 2
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.

Q. 1. Who is he in the first line of the extract? What does there refer to?
Ans. The word he in the first line of the extract refers to the author of the poem, our poet
who went there as a visitor and observer.
The word there refers to Madurai.

Q 2. What was the weather like when he went to Madurai?


Ans. It was the monsoon and the river in Madurai had got flooded.

Q3. What were the people discussing then?


Ans. The people discussed about the gradual rising of the flood water, inch by inch. They
counted the exact number of cobbled steps covered by the water. They observed how it rose
on the bathing places. They also talked about the manner in which three village houses were
washed away by the river. They kept on talking about one pregnant woman who was drowned
by the flood in the river. The river also swept away two cows named Gopi and Brinda.

Q4. What is the significance of their discussion?


Ans. Their discussion reveals their troubled state of mind. They are talking of the water rising
because the floods will destroy their houses, animals and also their lives.

Stanza 3
The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

Q. 1. In what way were the new poets like the old poets?
Ans. The new poets were like the old poets because they wrote about the same things the old
poets did. They had no creativity. They wrote a lot about the flood but not about the death of
the pregnant woman who probably carried twins moving inside her womb before birth. They-
had the same attitude of celebrating the occasion of the river being flooded once a year but
they remain totally indifferent to human suffering, death and destruction caused by the
flooded river.
Q. 2. Explain kicking at blank walls. Why are the twins doing so?
Am. The phrase kicking at blank walls means that the unborn baby is kicking the walls of the
mothers womb. The pregnant woman has drowned but the babies are still alive in her womb.
So they are trying to break free from it by kicking at its walls.

Stanza 4
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 colored
diapers to tell them apart.

Q. 1. Who is he in the first line of the extract? Why is he very important in the poem?
Ans. The word he in the first line of the extract refers to the author of the poem, our poet
who went there as a visitor and observer.
He is very important to the poem because he reports what really happens. The real
experience of the villagers is described. We get a realistic picture of the river and its
destructive aspect. Thus the poem rises above the ordinary to the sublime.

Q2. When do the poets manage to be poetic?


Ans. The poets manage to be poetic only once a year during the monsoons, when the river
gets flooded. At this time, the river looks beautiful and fascinating due to its forceful
movements. So it becomes an exciting object for the poets of Madurai to sing its praise.

Q3. What does the phrase and then reveal?


Ans. The phrase and then reveals the contrast between the poets who are inspired by the
floods and reality, that is death and destruction caused by the floods. The tragic turn of events
makes us sad at the plight of the villagers, the loss of their animals and property. We feel
sadder still that a pregnant woman too was drowned in the flooded river.

Q4. Comment on the style used by the poet in the poem.


Ans. The poet uses a narrativedescriptive style and creates a strangely beautiful poem. He
uses free verse with long and short lines, making each stanza to have just a single sentence.
The detailed descriptions in simple language give us beautiful word pictures. The poet uses
heavy sarcasm against the poets-of Madurai who only eulogize the external beauty of the
river. We admire the style of A.K. Ramanujan who, through a simple and vivid description of a
river in its dried up and flooded forms, conveys his message about human beings who see only
the superficial aspects of life and are blind to the plight of the poor folk.

Q. 5. Describe the tragedy of the pregnant woman drowning. What effect does it have on you?
Ans. The pregnant woman is washed away by the floods. She is an innocent victim and totally
helpless in the flooded river. No one comes to her aid to save her. This is a very tragic incident
and the poem repeats this incident three times. Even the cows have their names mentioned in
the poem but the name of the pregnant woman is not given.
This is tragic as human beings are given no importance and no identity.
The second time the poet mentions the pregnant woman; he suggests she may have been
carrying twins, who are flying to break free by kicking at the walls of her womb.
The third time he talks of the pregnant woman, he says the unborn twins may have been
identical with no moles on their bodies to distinguish them. Then the poet says that if their
mother wanted to give them separate identities, she would have to give them different colored
diapers to wear. The imaginative and detailed description of the innocent and helpless twins
who were not even given a chance to live by the floods is truly too painful to bear,
We are deeply moved by this incident. We are full of pity for the helpless mother and her
unborn twins,