Summary of A River

The poem “A River” brings out a bizarre picture of a river Vaigai which flows through the city Madurai. Once, Madurai was a holy city and a religious centre. We know that even today, Madurai is a place famous for its temples and is an important centre of Tamil culture. The poet mentions the old and the new poets celebrating the river in their poetry. However, immediately the poet describes the river in the summer season. During summer, the river dries to a trickle. It is full of dirt and rubbish. It is now no more a traditionally known holy water but a symbol of modern polluted city where in every summer:

A river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
barring the sand-ribs,
straw and women’s hair clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars

Even the bridge over the river is damaged. It is full of patches and in a desperate need of repair. Even then the ‘old and new poets’ sing about the flooded river. We know that flood is actually a destructive element. It is a great loss for human civilisation. However, the poets of any age express no concern for this calamity. Rather they romanticize the image of flooded river. They describe the grandeur and wonder of the river, but

….. no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her
kicking at blank walls

even before birth.

The third stanza brings out the horror and destructive result of the flooded river. The flood wipes out houses, kills animals and drowns men and women. Instead of being sacred, purifying water, the river becomes a cause of destruction. The image of ‘a pregnant woman’ is repeated in the last stanza. There is also a reference to twins. If traditionally the twins were distinguished with moles on their body, in the altered modern times, there are

….. no moles on their bodies, but ….. different – coloured diapers

to tell them apart.

In this way, through the image of ‘river’ the poet suggests the decadence and destruction of the modern world. It is decadence of a holy city and also of Indian religion and culture. It presents a gradual collapse of the modern culture. In contrast to the romantic glorification of Indian culture, the poem criticises the blind religious faith. He criticizes Indian orthodoxy in an ironic tone. The mood of ridicule is dominant throughout the poem. It is a typical modernist stance of the modern Indian poet.


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