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"A River" by A.K. Ramanujan describes the river in Madurai, which...
...is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Indian peninsula.
This city is a place of patterns, where the river dries up and then transforms to a swelling monster that carries away homes, animals and people. However, the pattern has been going on (it seems) for so long that the people, indeed even the poets, have little concern for these events. However, the author seems to say, just because the river swells once a year and people treat it like a "bad habit," does not mean that the effects of such a catastrophe are insignificant.
The beginning of the poem describes the dried up river, and scenes that people take note of casually—enough that the writer describes stones as animals—a charming observation:
...the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun…
However, there is foreshadowing in the next line, which will lead to images that are anything but charming.
The poets only sang of the floods.
When the flooding begins, everyone pays attention, though much the way they do when the river dries up; there is little—if any—alarm, and their notice of the amount of water seems conversational in nature. The water rises; it is measured. Three village homes are carried off, and two cows that seem to get swept away as regularly as the flooding occurs. However, one small note is made, almost offhandedly, tucked away between floating houses and cows—to demonstrate how unconcerned the townspeople are:
...and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.
One wonders how the people can be so unaffected…and then the writer notes that the poets—even the new (young) ones, react in much the same way:
The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
of the pregnant woman
This tragedy builds in the writer (and the reader) like the flooding waters. We want to ask, "What do you mean, nobody spoke about the pregnant woman who drowned?!" This poet cannot remain quiet, and he is not unaffected. He makes the loss real and meaningful to the reader—she is drowned "with perhaps twins in her."
"Oh, no," we think, and having absorbed what we thought was the most horrible image—the drowned pregnant woman—we discover that it can, and is, more horrible. "Twins." The loss is greater: not just of mother and child—but of mother, and two babies swimming within their mother as she (and they) drowns in the river…and the people and the poets make no note of it.
Our sense of loss increases: we read about the babies within, "kicking at blank walls / even before birth." The poet reminds the reader once again of the man: "he," who says "the river has water enough to be poetic about only once a year…" and again indifferently lists the "fatalities" like items on a shopping list—the houses, the pregnant woman, and the cows. Our poet wants his readers to be painfully aware of the loss of the woman: even the readers who never knew her—and we should be, as should the people of Madurai. If her neighbors choose not to notice or remember it, we can pay tribute by remembering her and marking—even in the expanse of the wide world—her loss. The poet makes sure of this:
...one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
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