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In "Obituary" by A. K. Ramanujan, I did not find a larger commentary on death, but a seeming discontent over the perceived failures of a father's life.
There are facts regarding the speaker's father's birth and death, and dates—as there might have been on a headstone had he not been cremated.
...like his caesarian birth
in a brahmin ghetto
and his death by heart-
failure in the fruit market.
He did not come naturally into the world; perhaps dying anywhere other than in bed would have been considered unnatural as well. We learn of the cultural traditions as the speaker's father is cremated, and what is left that the sons dispose of at the priest's directions.
However, it seems more the intent of the writer to shed light on the man himself, and how he was perceived:
on a table of papers,
left debts and daughters,
a bedwetting grandson
named by the toss
of a coin after him...
Sadly, the man's life is "evaluated" by the things he left half-done, rather than by the things he accomplished. There were debts unpaid and daughters unmarried; the only importance reflected in the "grandson" is that the boy seemed only to receive his grandfather's name by chance—perhaps literally by the toss of a coin—not out of respect for his grandfather.
However, the speaker notes...
Being the burning type,
he burned properly
at the cremation
as before, easily
and at both ends...
This seems a clear allusion to the cliché regarding "burning the candle at both ends." The contemporary explanation of this saying describes:
...a life that is lived frenetically and unsustainably - working or enjoying oneself late into the night only to begin again early the next day.
The idea previous to this was that burning a precious candle at both ends was deemed a terrible waste, as it would burn faster and last less time. In either case, the son seems unhappy with the way he father lived his life. Although historically gold coins were placed in the mouth of the deceased, here they are placed on his eyes, and strangely, they are untouched by the fire. Why? In many cultures, they were with the body to provide passage to the next life. In this case, perhaps they are untouched as the dead man needed no help; perhaps it was a way to show that he was not a traditional man—and he rejected the coins. It could also be a statement that the father never did things the way most other people did—another negative observation.
The poet notes that had there been a headstone, it would not have contained...
...everything he didn't quite
manage to do himself...
This also has a negative connotation. In fact, the writer seems to have little sympathy or interest in the death of the man.
But someone told me
he got two lines
in an inside column
of a Madras newspaper...
The speaker does not look through the paper himself, but someone else tells him of the only record of the death (not on a headstone). The newspapers then find their way to holding food, e.g., a jaggery. The paper is one step away from the trash. On occasion, the writer reads the newspapers that wrap his food.
...that I usually read
for fun, and lately
in the hope of finding
these obituary lines.
The search for the obituary is a causal one. He ends, perhaps bitterly, noting the death changed his mother. The mother, at least, seems to miss her husband. The author, sadly, seems to resent his dad and the yearly ritual—the acknowledgement the death—maybe a waste of his time.
After reading the poem, I think that it is more about what and who the person left behind and the responsibilities that are left to him and others after his father's death. It is also about the character of his father and finally in the end a sort of reconciliation. He shows in the poem that he truly cared for his father by looking for his obituary of in newspapers. I don't think that the rituals are questioned, they are just described as simply a description of the process after death.
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