This well-known A.k. Ramanujan poem depicts a son’s reaction to his father’s death. The piece takes the reader through a variety of images that relate to where and how the father died as well as what has changed now that he’s gone. Lines like: “And he left us / a changed mother / and more than / one annual ritual” help convey the speaker’s experience in ‘Obituary’ in clear language.
‘Obituary’ by A.K. Ramanujan describes the aftermath of a father’s death and all the things he left behind, physical and emotional.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that his father died. When he died, he left behind a lot. There are unless and meaningless things, like dust and old papers. But there are also memories and rituals which are going to last a lifetime.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes how they cremated this father and threw his leftover bones into the river. He also speaks about something he learned but is yet to see with his own eyes. Apparently, his father left an obituary in a local paper. Now, the son is searching the most popular papers for it, hoping to see this other thing he left behind. The poem ends with an emphasis on the importance of the rituals that came from his father and are now established parts of family life.
You can read the full poem here.
Father, when he passed on,
named by the toss
of a coin after him,
In the first stanza of ‘Obituary,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader who died– his father. The speaker focuses on what the father left behind. There were utterly normal things that have taken on new importance. Such as dust on a “table of papers” and “debts and daughters.” The father also left behind a grandson named after him. Little details, like the fact that the grandson was named after him because of a “toss of a coin,” are interesting and bring the reader closer to the speaker’s family.
a house that leaned
slowly through our growing
he burned properly
at the cremation
In the second stanza of ‘Obituary, he lists things that the father left behind grows. There was a house that had been leaning slowly throughout the speaker’s years. It is on a coconut tree in the yard.
In the next lines, there are a number of things the “burning” could allude to. Practices associated with farming are the most obvious. To make it more complicated and relate it more easily to the loss, the speaker compares his father’s habit of burning to the way he burnt promptly when he was cremated. The humor here lightens the mood a bit and tells the reader that the speaker does not intend to speak too heavily on loss and depression. Instead, he is celebrating his father’s life.
as before, easily
and at both ends,
several spinal discs, rough,
some burned to coal, for sons
In the next lines of ‘Obituary,’ he refers to the “eye coins.” This is related to the tradition of putting coins on a dead person’s eyes when they are buried, or, in this case, before they are cremated. He draws attention to the fact that that the coins didn’t burn. They were left in the ashes, looking the same as when they went into the fire. Alongside the coins are “several spinal discs. These, unlike the coins, are rough.
to pick gingerly
and throw as the priest
no longstanding headstone
with his full name and two dates
The sons, the speaker, and his brothers engage in a ritual of throwing these bits of bone “facing east / where three rivers met / near the railway station.” The speaker mixes traditional and mysticism with reality. This ritual happens somewhere normal, right near a train station. He goes on to describe how they chose not to have a headstone for their father. They didn’t think that “his full name and two dates would do him justice.
to holdin their parentheses
everything he didn’t quite
and his death by heart-
failure in the fruit market.
The “parentheses” which would go around the dates would’ve represented “everything he didn’t quite / manage to do himself.” The kind of things the speaker is thinking of is the father’s birth and his death. He was born in a “brahmin ghetto,” and he died “by heart- / failure in the fruit market.” Simple places are again contrasted with important events.
But someone told me
he got two lines
exactly four weeks later
The sixth stanza relates directly back to the title of the poem, ‘Obituary.’ The father has left something behind, “two lines / in an inside column / of a Madras newspaper.” The son doesn’t know exactly which paper or where the lines are. But he did hear that it is sold by the kilo and would turn up with the “streethawkers,” or those on the street selling goods, “four weeks later.”
In these lines, the poet makes use of half-rhyme with “newspaper” and “streethawkers.”
who sell it in turn
to the small groceries
in newspaper cones
that I usually read
These sellers bring their papers to the grocery stores where the speaker goes to buy normal everyday products. Usually, he buys a newspaper along with spices such as coriander.
In these lines, “groceries” and “jaggery” are half-rhymes connected due to their “e” sounds.
for fun, and lately
in the hope of finding
and more than
one annual ritual.
In the last seven lines, the speaker describes reading the paper and hoping to find the “obituary lines.” Their presence is one thing the father left behind, along with everything else mentioned in the previous stanzas. The poem ends with the speaker describing how his mother has changed. Now, he adds the family is left with annual rituals which were started by a man who is no longer alive.
The poet engages with themes of loss and father/son relationships. The speaker addresses his father’s death in different ways throughout the poem. The tone is mostly conversational and direct in these lines, contemplating what’s been lost and what else has changed. His relationship with his father has been altered by the man’s death. He now sees him as far more human and less divine than he did before.
Structure and Form
‘Obituary’ is an eight-stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines. These lines do not do follow a specific rhyme scheme, but that does not mean that there aren’t moments of rhyme and rhythm in the text. For example, Ramanujan makes use of slant or half-rhymes.
These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. There are a few examples of this kind of rhyme in the first stanza with the words “papers” and “daughters” and “on” and “grandson.” These words do not rhyme perfectly, but they are clearly similar. In the fourth stanza, the endings of the first three lines are connected due to a similarity in assonance. The long “e” sound is repeated in “gingerly,” “priest,” and “east.”
Throughout ‘Obituary,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: helps to create additional moments of rhyme for the text and also, at times, helps support the tone. One example is “debts” and “daughters” in the first stanza. The relationship between these two words is somewhat humorous, and the fact that they begin with the same letter only emphasizes this fact.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet creates especially powerful descriptions. For example, “he burned properly / at the cremation” and “his death by heart- / failure in the fruit market.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza.
The purpose is to explore the aftermath of the speaker’s father’s death. This includes everything he left behind as well as the way his death changed the speaker and his other family members.
Throughout this poem, the speaker addresses his father’s death without much emotion. But, the amount of detail that’s in the poem makes it clear that he is moved by his passing. At times, the speaker seems to be disappointed by his father’s death.
The speaker is someone whose father has recently passed away. He’s considering all the things his father left behind. These are some physical things and some emotional changes. For example, “a changed mother” and more than one “annual ritual.”
Throughout this piece, the poet’s speaker uses a conversational poem. He states facts about his father’s death without imbuing them with too much emotion. This makes the poem quite easy and direct to read.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Obituary’ should also consider reading some other A.K. Ramanujan poems. For example:
- ‘A River‘ – focuses on the Madurai River, how it has been depicted by poets throughout time and brings the suffering that exists along its banks to the reader’s attention.
- ‘Love Poem for a Wife‘ – depicts the poet’s sleeping wife with unusual, thoughtful, and very memorable imagery and then alludes to their unity as one being.
- ‘Of Mothers, among other things‘ – uses nontraditional images to depict and define the speaker’s mother as someone strong, determined, and eagle-like.