Summary of A River

The poem ‘A River’ by Ramanujan is one of his finest poems taken from his magnum opus, The Striders (1965).In this poem, the poet has compared and contrasted the attitudes of the old poets and those of the modern poets towards human misery. He concluded that the two classes of poets are oblivious to human pain and sorrow. Their poetry does not reflect the miseries of human beings. In the present poem, he has proven this argument.

The poem is all about the Vaigai river, which flows through the heart of the city of Madurai, the hub of Tamil culture. The word Madurai refers to a “sweet city.” It is a term from Tamil. This town is the seat of learning and Tamil culture. It is also a sacred city full of temples, including the famous Temple of Meenakshi. The poets wrote a lot of poems about the temples and the river. The poet provides two distinctly contrasting representations of the river in the poem A River: a vivid illustration of the river in the summer season and the river in its full flow when catastrophic fury arrives with the floods.

The river is almost dry in the summer. Only a very thin stream of water flows. So the sand ribs are visible on the river’s bed. The stones that lay on the river’s bed are also visible. The hair and stow that dogged the Watergates could be seen on the Sandy bed. Under the bridge, the iron bars need repair. The wet stones are all like crocodiles sleeping. The dry rocks look like a shaved buffaloes. For the poet, it is a wonder because such scenes are not mentioned by the poets very much. All of these symbolise the absolute suffering and degeneration of the human condition in Hindu society.

The poets of the past and the present experience it very anxiously during the rainy season when the floods strike. From time to time, they recall the rise of the river inch by inch. They recall how one by one the stone steps of the bathing place are submerged. They swept away three village houses. The news was that a pregnant lady and a few cows were being swept away. Even the new poets are not bothered to write about all this material. As seen by the old poets, they still look at it in the old way. The poets have been the admirers of the towns, temples, rivers, streams in the past, and are oblivious to the miseries of humans and animals. Every summer, the river dries to a trickle, the “poets sang only of the floods.” Flood is a sign of devastation to people and property. The poets of today still quote the old poets without the importance of life:

“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 the blank walls even before birth.”

The lines above are satirising and debunking the typical romantic view of the Vaigai River in Madurai, by ancient poets. The picture of the “pregnant woman” is a fine example of two generations, the present and the future. This is a poignant picture full of pathos. R. Parthasarathy points out, “The relative attitudes of the old and new Tamil poets, both of whom are exposed for their callousness to suffering when it is so obvious as a result of the flood.” The coloured diapers of the twins symbolise the black people and the white people. The use of wit, irony and humour, and dramatic imagery, is a hallmark of his style. We can also mark “A River” as a tragic-comic poem.

Analysis of River

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 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.

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.

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.

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 the 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.

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.

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.

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 the commitment of a poet or artist towards the society.


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