Obituary Summary and Analysis
Table of Contents
Obituary is a notice of death, generally published in newspapers by the near relatives of the deceased person to inform others of the death. Sometimes a person may draft his own obituary and ask the members of his family to have it published in newspapers after he has died.
The speaker in this poem (who may be the poet himself or some imaginary person) gives us an account of certain happenings connected with the death of his father. When the father died, he left behind him a dusty table full of papers and some debts to be paid. He also left behind him a number of daughters and an infant grandson who had been named after him by the toss of a coin (and not as the result of an agreed decision by the family). Furthermore, he left behind him a house which leaned on a coconut tree growing in the compound, while the coconut tree itself was a leaning one and not growing straight upwards.
When the father was cremated, the fire easily burnt his body. In the ashes his sons found several round bits of metal which they picked up carefully in order to throw them into the water at the meeting point of three rivers near the railway station, as directed by the priest performing the various ceremonies. However, the sons did not erect any permanent memorial to the dead man who had made his appearance in this world through a Caesarean operation in a congested Brahmin locality and who had died of heart failure in the local fruit market.
The speaker goes on to say that he had come to know that his father had got a brief obituary notice published in a Madras newspaper through someone to inform people about the death. The speaker expected to come across these lines in the newspapers four weeks later when the newspaper would be sold along with other junk to some street-hawker who would then sell it to small grocery shops from where the speaker bought salt, coriander, and jaggery which were wrapped up by the shopkeeper in newspaper-sheets or put into small bags made of old newspapers. Finally, the speaker says that his father’s death had produced a profound effect upon his mother who was now a completely changed woman, and that, furthermore, the death of his father had also now made it necessary for the survivors to perform several rituals in the course of every year.
As the very title shows, the poem Obituary relates to a death and is written in a tone of grief, and yet there is more of humour and wit in this poem than of grief. The title prepares us for a mournful and saddening poem; but the theme is treated in a light-hearted manner.
In fact, the treatment of the father’s death is more comic and ironical than pathetic and poignant. For instance, when the speaker says that his father left behind a table full of papers and also some debts and daughters and a bed-wetting grandson, we feel amused because the legacy is more of a liability for the bereaved family than an asset. Then the naming of the bed-wetting grandson by the toss of a coin is also very amusing. The house leaning on a coconut tree which is itself leaning is again something comic. But the comedy does not end here. The dead father was the “burning type”, and so he burned properly and easily at the cremation, leaving in the ashes several spinal discs which the sons were to throw into the meeting-point of three rivers under the instructions of the priest.
The birth of the father by a Caesarean operation in a congested Brahmin locality and his death by heart-failure in the fruit-market are amusing too, and our amusement is enhanced by the speaker’s saying that the father himself had not been able to arrange for his birth (through a Caesarean operation) and his death (by heart failure). And so the poem goes on with only a suggestion of tragedy in the one line “a changed mother”. The whole poem shows Ramanujan’s comic gift.
Here and there we have an alliterative phrase: “debts and daughters”; “a bed-wetting grandson” (here it is the “g” sound which is repeated); “being the burning type”; “several spinal discs”. In form, this poem is most irregular, much of Indo-Anglican poetry. The lines vary in length; and rhyme has not been used at all. If one line consists of seven words, there are others consisting of two words and even one word. Then the use of capital letters at the beginning of the lines has also been avoided.
A critic, namely Rama Nair opines that this poem works on the principle of a paradox. The paradox is that, though the influence of the father is so devastating it nevertheless becomes the nucleus for the son’s creative tension. There are two obituaries in the poem-one in the form of a newspaper (which is impersonal) where the father “got two lines/in an inside column” and the other in the form of the poet’s own creative response to the “tragic” event.
The son’s response is in part responsible for the son’s own mental growth. One obituary becomes a part of history (as is yesterday’s newspaper which may be sold by the kilo and used for wrapping jaggery and coriander by shopkeepers !), and the other becomes an integral part of the speaker’s personal growth. Both are juxtaposed to generate a creative tension. The physical description of the house leaning on a bent coconut tree in the yard suggests a general condition of decay. The growing consciousness of the speaker (namely the son) is retarded by his dissociation from his own culture. The outer landscape of decline reflects the inward sterility of the speaker’s own mind.
The father leaves the sons with poverty and with “a changed mother” and “more than one annual ritual”. The irony is that mere cataloguing of the events in the poem gives way at the end to an intensity of painful personal involvement with the reference to “a changed mother”. The human element has intruded, and the speaker is, perhaps unwillingly, caught in a reverie punctuated by agonizing reminiscences.
This interpretation by a critic enables us to read much more in the poem than we had been able to do by our own efforts. However, we do not agree with the view that there are any agonizing reminiscences. There is only a suggestion of tragedy here and there, and even that tragic suggestiveness is considerably diminished by the poet’s humour and wit.
What particularly strikes us in this poem is Ramanujan’s capacity to pick out the comic elements in an event or in a situation which is regarded as tragic, or at least as saddening. And we are struck also by Ramanujan’s penchant for details which, though not integral to the theme of the poem, are quite interesting and which enhance the realistic effect.
Obituary Line by Line Analysis
When he passed on- when he died.
A bedwetting grandson- a grandson who was at the time a mere infant. Bedwetting refers to a child’s urination in bed, and its wetting the bed as a consequence thereof.
Several spinal discs- several small round bits of metal.
Gingerly- cautiously, carefully.
His caesarean birth- the delivery of a child by means of a surgical operation performed by a surgeon on a woman’s abdomen when a natural delivery is not possible.
Brahmin ghetto- a poor, dirty, congested neighbourhood inhabited by Brahmins.
Sold by the kilo—(the old newspapers) which are sold to junk-dealers by the weight.
Small groceries- small shops which sell such articles and commodities of daily consumption as spices, sugar, tea-leaves, and pulses.