A River – Commonwealth Literature

A River 

In Madurai,
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 women’s 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.
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.

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.

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 coloured diapers
to tell them apart.

Author A.K.Ramanujan

Summary and Analysis

A.K. Ramanujan was a translator and poet, born in Mysore. He is also known as the greatest
modern poet of India. In spite of a Western University Education, he remained inherently Indian
at heart. He contributed richly to Indian aesthetics and folklore. He was concerned about the
decline of Tamil poetry. Moreover he had genuine kindness toward the underdog, the poor and
toward women. In his poem A River, the narrator talks of the river Vaikai flowing through the
ancient city of Madurai. Madurai has been sketched by the narrator who is visiting, as

‘A city of temples and poets’

This is an ironic reference to Madurai as a seat of Tamilian culture, which according to him is in
a state of decadence. He observes that the poets, past and present only speak of the river during
the rains and floods. A description follows, of the river in summer.
The above lines satirize and debunk the traditional romantic view of the river Vaikai in Madurai,
by the ancient poets. He is derisive too, of the new poets who have no wit but to blindly copy
their predecessors.

Humor is presented in the names of the cows and the colored diapers of the twins to help tell
them apart. Yet this too, is an attack on the orthodoxy of Hinduism. While cows are given
names, no one knows who the pregnant woman is nor are they concerned. Human sacrifices were
performed to appease the gods because of droughts in Tamil Nadu, and the drowned twin babies
may be a reference to such cruel and orthodox rituals.

This is an unusual poem with many layers of meaning and is a commentary on the indifference
of the old and modern poets to the ravages caused by the river in flood and the pain and suffering
caused to humans.

This becomes ultimately clear that they are not sympathetic with suffering human beings. They
are totally callous and indifferent. This kind of attitude makes their poetry weak and
unappealing, dry and cheerless.

The tone of the poem is based on sarcasm and irony. The structure of the poem has been in
paragraphs and single lines. There are four longer verse paragraphs and a shorter one in the
beginning. There are only two single isolated lines. This kind of structural arrangement
contributes to the effect of irony. It also helps to grasp the main points clearly. Secondly, a word
can be said about the language used in the poem. It is very simple on account of which the
thought sequence of the poem is presented unmistakably and clearly.

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

The poem A River illustrates many significant features of Ramanujan’s poetry, such as his adept
linking of the past and the present so as 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.

1. Which river is mentioned in the extract? What is Madurai reputed for? What was the subject of
the poets of Madurai?
The river Vaikai which flows through the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is mentioned in
the extract. Madurai is famous for its spiritual, literary and cultural heritage; its magnificent city
with its numerous impressive temples built by the kings that ruled Madurai in the past.
The poets of Madurai, its minstrels, wrote and sang eulogies of its marvelous temples and its
magnificent cites. In a way these eulogies can be deemed as eulogies of the kings who built these
temples and cities and patronized the literati.

2. What do the images of the river drying to a trickle and the sand ribs suggest?
The river drying to a trickle conveys the scorching heat of summer that dries up everything and
makes life unbearably miserable with the accompanying famine and starvation.
The dried river exposes the sand dunes at the bottom of the river and they bring to our mind the
skeletal rib cages of a starved human being.
Both the images bring out the ugly aspect of the dried up river that brings drought, which in turn
causes gruesome misery and starvation. Human suffering caused by the drought is suggested by
the river drying to a trickle exposing the bone-dry expanse of the sand dunes.

3. What do the straw and women’s hair do? What do they signify?
The straw and women’s hair choke or block the watergates under the bridges which have patches
of repair all over them.
The three images -of the straw and women’s hair and the bridges in disrepair -together create a
scenario of filth and wretchedness which the flowing river has masked. However, the dry river
bares and exposes the ugliness that lies underneath.
The poet may be suggesting the attempt of the poets to hide or callously ignore the stark and
harsh social reality by writing poems of cities and temples.

4. How does the poet describe the stones or boulders at the bottom of the river? To what does he
compare them? Why?
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.

5. Bring out the irony in the last line of the extract: The poets only sang of the floods.
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.

6. Who is referred to as ‘He’ here? Where is he now” Why?
He is a visitor to the city of Madurai who has gone there to see the river Vaikai in flood. He can
be a modern poet, probably the poet Ramanujan himself.
Poets have romanticized the beauty of the river Vaikai in flood and he had gone there to observe
the beauty of the flooded river.

7. What were the destructions caused by the river? What was the reaction of the people towards this
tragic occurrence?
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 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.

8. Comment on the lines: a couple of cows/ named Gopi and Brinda as usual
The poet had nowhere mentioned the name of any human individual but he gives the cows names
of divine figures. This is to convey the importance of the cows to the villagers; the cows are
sacred to the villagers and also their main source of livelihood.

9. How do you react to the poet’s description of the unborn twins kicking at blank walls of the
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.

10. What do you infer from the following lines:
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
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.

11. Comment on the theme of the poem.
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.