E.V. Ramakrishnan is a bilingual writer who has published poetry and criticism in English and Malayalam. He is the author of three books of poetry, publishing each after symmetrical intervals of fourteen years: Being Elsewhere in Myself (1980), A Python in a Snake Park (1994) and Terms of Seeing: New and Selected Poems (2008). He is also the author of a landmark book of translations of modern Indian poetry: The Tree of Tongues. He teaches English at South Gujarat State University, Surat.
The distinguishing characteristic of EVR’s poetry is its ability to combine irony with wonder, critique with elegy, metaphor with moral concern, a capacity for image with philosophical immersion. This is poetry of resistance, of reflection and of song. ‘Seeing’, as the title of his book suggests, is the significant preoccupation of this poetry. Time and again, the poet offers us unexpected new angles of vision, inventive ways of envisioning – and defamiliarising – the world we live in. An economical poetics makes the visual ingenuity that much more effective.
The title poem, ‘Terms of Seeing’, is a fine example of how the equation between seer and seen is reversed in the enchanted world of reverie. The children, who stop by the disused well in the orchard to watch turtles “moving with a monastic grace . . . / . . . like much-travelled witch-doctors”, suddenly find themselves more watched than watching. “In the dark cornea of the well,” writes the poet in a finely crafted image, “the turtles moved like exposed optic nerves”. Again in ‘The Tamarind tree’, consider the sudden reversal of conventional frames of reference: “You meet the south-west monsoon / on equal terms in an uprising of rain”.
The poet’s dismantling of habitual and eroded ways of seeing sharpens his poetry into a conscious instrument of political interrogation and resistance. ‘Falling Figures’ probes the frontiers of human violence, the extremities of trauma. Few Indians can miss the reference to the newspaper image in the aftermath of the Gujarat communal carnage (one that will haunt the country for decades) when the poet speaks of the “mob with petrol / bombs . . .” moving deeper “into the eyes of a man / frozen in fear, his hands folded”. But then comes the deep yearning of the final stanza where the tone suddenly turns meditative and elegiac: “And this is when you long / for the script of the slanted rain on the plains / to tell you the difference between a prayer / and a false affidavit”.
Significantly, the political tenor of these poems does not make for any jingoism. While the denunciation of hierarchies of privilege and entitlement is scathing, there is a refreshing absence of any parochial or nativist stance. And so, the village, for example, is not romanticised into a sylvan world of innocence as opposed to the soiled world of the city. In ‘Deception’, the poet speaks of how the new urban migrant is capable of ‘sadness’ and is yet acutely aware of “the village as it always was”. The village here is a place of ‘deception’, a place symbolised by “the double helix of anger and inheritance”.
In an unpublished reflection on his poetry, EVR writes, “I feel that the idiom of Indian English has not adequately represented this basic dimension of the carnivalesque in Indian life . . . When I write poems like . . . ‘Mending Shoes’ . . . , I am looking for an idiom that can articulate the sacred and the subaltern in our life, for, to me, both usually coexist.”
If articulating “the sacred and subaltern” sums up his personal poetic aspiration, ‘Calligraphy’ (a poem not included in this edition) offers an image that could well be deployed to sum up the poetic project in its entirety. Poetry, we might say (along with EVR), is about finding “deviant ways of transcribing the banal”.
It is something his own poetry accomplishes with dexterity and élan.
Terms of Seeing: New and Selected Poems, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2006, ISBN 81-220-0711-2
A Python in A Snake Park, Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 1980, ISBN 81-7167-194-2
Being Elsewhere in Myself, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1980
English Criticism, Translation
Crisis and Confession: Studies in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, Chanakya Publications, New Delhi, 1988, ISBN 81-7001-034-9
(edited) The Tree of Tongues: An Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1999, ISBN 81-85952-70-1
Making It New: Modernisms in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1999, ISBN 81-85952-26-4
Varnamala: If At All You See Again, a poem by E.V. Ramakrishnan.
Tribune India: Ramesh Luthra reviews E.V. Ramakrishnan's book,Terms of Seeing.
The Hindu: Shyamala A. Narayan reviews E.V. Ramakrishnan’s anthology
Also on this site
‘Poetry as a Radical Discourse of Demystification’: An essay on K. G. Sankara Pillai by E. V. Ramakrishnan