‘A River’ appeared in Ramanujan’s first volume of poems titled ‘The Striders’. It is a poem on the river Vaikai which flows through the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, South India. ‘Baring the sand-ribs’: the river is so dry that one can see clearly the columns of the dry sand lying exposed on the river banks, as one can see the chest ribs of a very thin person. ‘Straw and women’s hair’: shows the poet’s keen eye for very small and specific details; the collection of rubbish dumped by people into the river, a very common sight in India. ‘Clogging the Watergates’: the flow of water from the dams is obstructed by the pile of rubbish that has accumulated as a result of the river drying up; this seems like an image that describes the obstruction to the free flow of the imagination amoung the city poets.
This poem is the poet’s recollections of his visit to Madurai one day during the summer. He found that a flood in the river was imminent. The rapidity and force of the Vaikai in flood is seen and felt when its fury is unleashed within the very first half hour of the flood. ‘A couple of cows named’: as cows are individualized like human beings who are given personal names and this lends a comical touch to an otherwise tragic description. ‘The new poets still quoted’ the old romantic tradition and literary conventions being imitated blindly in poetry by the new poets who praises the Vaikai only when it is flooded. ‘The river has water enough’ refers to the ironical dig at the poets whose poetic feelings are not aroused by the dryness of the river.
The poet-visitor was deeply shocked by this grim spectacle of utter destruction caused by the Vaikai to life and property all around. He is even more shocked by the callous attitude and the total indifference of the city poets, both old and new, towards this tragic situation of human suffering and death. He was dismayed that they ‘sang only of the floods’ when they should have rather tried to relieve the people of their dangerous plight. Thus, himself being a realist, he cannot help taking a dig at these city poets for evading reality and trying to escape into a make-believe world of self-delusion and fantasy. ‘Identical twins with no mole’ are the two unborn babies which are without any spot or blemish, and so they can be acceptable to the gods as sacrifices. ‘Different-coloured diapers’ is an example of irony and humour for the two drowned unborn babies are so alike that they can be distinguished from each other only by the different colours of their diapers.
‘A River’ is one of Ramanujan’s finest poems. It features some very important characteristics of his poetry, such as his use of memory to link the past and the present history of Tamilian culture in order to present the idea of continuity, his eloquent portrayal of the typical Indian milieu, which reflects upon his being essential Indian in his roots and consciousness, in spite of the fact that he had lived abroad for many years. There is also the use of wit, irony and humour, and vivid imagery which is quite typical of his style. Written in a detached, impersonal manner, ‘A River’ is marked by an irregularity of form, with lines of varying length, as well as the absence of rhyme.