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The Paradigm -- Nammalwar

Guest poem sent in by Ravi Rajagopalan
(Poem #1381) The Paradigm
 We here and that man, this man,
     and that other in-between,
 and that woman, this woman,
     and that other, whoever,

 those people, and these,
     and these others in-between,
 this things, that thing,
     and this other in-between, whichever,

 all things dying, these things,
     those things, those others in-between,
 good things, bad things,
     things that were, that will be,

 being all of them,
 he stands there.
-- Nammalwar
           (ca AD 850), Tr by AK Ramanujan

We had a recent bereavement, and in my grief, trying to sleep and failing, I
picked up this slim volume called "Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu
by Nammalwar" by AK Ramanujan, and read this gem. I had purchased this book
in Chennai recently to better acquaint myself with my ancestry. When I read
this poem I felt things fall into place for me, and even as I write this I
can feel the emotions well up due to the loss of a long-awaited one.

Nammalwar is often called the greatest of the Tamil poets who sang songs in
praise of Vishnu (known as Alwars) and was the one of the creators of the
Tamil Bhakti cult. He is supposed to have lived between AD880 to AD930, from
a peasant family, and apparently died at the age of 35. He composed more
than a thousand poems, and the work from which this one is taken
("Tiruvaymoli") is the best known. By the time he died his influence on the
common man was so profound that statues of Nammalwar were installed at most
Tamil shrines where they are worshipped to this day, and his songs are
celebrated and sung by people every day in Tamil Nadu. Not many poets are
revered this way.

The doyen of Tamil scholars, Prof A K Ramanujan, the translator, taught for
many years at the University of Chicago and died in 1993 at the age of
sixty-four. The original poem in Tamil is a simple gem of pronouns and
semiotic pointers, and it goes to the genius of Prof Ramanujan that he has
managed to create through translation what I thought was a beautiful piece
of verse in itself.

The poem is addressed to Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe in the Hindu
trinity. Nammalwar was a devout man, and truly believed that Vishnu is
immutable and inclusive, of people and things, birth and death, joy and
sorrow. In this poem, Nammalwar plays on Tamil pronouns to point to each of
us present and not present, man or woman, and every object, dead or alive.
The poem is one long sentence, and starting with the 'we' at the start, and
the "he" - denoting Vishnu - at the end, Nammalwar manages to create a sense
of one-ness and inclusion. However, as Prof Ramanujan says, Nammalwar
manages to point to a central stillness or oneness - "He stands there".

To quote from Prof Ramanujan - since I cannot better this - in a poem like
this "grammar becomes poetry, and poetry becomes theology. If one may be
fanciful, the 'present perfect' here describes both a grammatical form and
the form of the divine. Conceptions of god are enacted by word and syntax;
furthermore, god's one-and-manyness becomes the living word to be uttered,
danced to, sung and chanted in temples as these poems are to this day".

For me, I began to feel the stillness underlying our lives and the process
of coping with loss is just beginning.



72 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

> Guest poem sent in by Ravi Rajagopalan
> "The Paradigm"
> We here and that man, this man,

The tamil version had words that essentially had no english equivalent
at all ... such as "uvar", for which Ramanujan had to invent words -

> and that other in-between,

like the one above.

I actually saw a TV program where Ramanujan was explaining Sangam era
poetry, and he read out this poem, among others. I was in school at
that time - and I think I had just been introduced to his poetry,
courtesy the good old Panorama - A book of English Verse.

Thank you for this poem - brought back a lot of memories.


Siddhartha Joshi said...

Weird. Unsettling. A gem. In its energy and careening structure, it felt
like the poetic analog of a rapidly moving dream in which I keep turning
to look at something, but can never *focus* on it.

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P N Ramachandran said...

please read the posts on Nammalvar:Thiruviruttam:A Selection at
These are based among others on A K Ramanujan's translation. Thanks and regards

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