A.K. Ramanujan, an Indian poet, muses about a father’s death in the poem “Obituary.” Writing in free verse, the narrator tells the story of a son and father’s relationship after the death of the father. Each stanza provides a different view of the father from the son’s perspective.
The narrator feels disgruntled by the problems his father left him. His legacy is evaluated by what he has left undone. The son finds nothing but unhappiness. Probably the speaker is the oldest son because he is the one who is usually left to take care of the father’s estate in Indian culture.
His heritage basically provides a set of inconveniences: unpaid bills, unmarried daughters, and a house with its own set of problems. A grandson, who wets the bed and was named after the speaker’s father, is a hindrance as well.
In a typical Indian funeral ceremony, the father is placed on a funeral pyre and cremated. The father had a hot temper since the poet states that he was the “burning type.” Apparently, the father’s body burned well.
He burned properly at the cremation
As before, easily
And at both ends…
Afterwards, the eye coins, used to keep the eyes shut during the burning, were intact. Little was left unburned except for a few bones. The sons pick them up and throw them into the river as the priest told them.
There will be no headstone with his full name and the date of his birth and death. The narrator refers to parentheses which symbolically hold the man's life between them.The father’s life was off kilter: his birth was caesarean; life in a ghetto; death in a street market.
With a different set of emotions, at this point in the poem, the narrator seems to long for some remembrance of his father.
But someone told me
He got two lines
in an inside column
Of a Madras newspaper...
In the hope of finding these obituary lines…
The narrator discovers that his father had a two line obituary in a local paper a month after he died. The paper is sold by street vendors. The son often gets sugar cane in one of the papers rolled in a cone and then reads it later. The son wishes that he could find a copy of the obituary.
Sadly, the father left his family, particularly the narrator's grieving mother. Now, the family rituals will be without him and up to the son. The son wants some meaning for his father’s existence; this has become the son’s quest.