Truth itself is strange, and as they say in English, stranger than fiction. A curious thing happened the other day.<g data-gr-id="118">’</g>(215)
These are not the opening lines of A K Ramanujan’s novella Someone Else’s Autobiography, published by Oxford University Press in <g data-gr-id="146">2006</g> but they might as well be. In my previous review of K Siddalingaiah’s autobiography, I asked you to consider the implications of this ‘I’ that writes, reads, remembers and forgets. In this work, it is the “autobiography” itself that is under scrutiny. Ramanujan has put me in a fix, as I’m sure will be the case with you as well, when you come across this book.
In a book titled simply as Poems and a Novella, a collection of several books of poetry and this strange and beautiful work, there is a peculiar kind of familiar anonymity. Have you ever encountered a person, a complete stranger and with the very first word, knew them as familiar? You know you haven’t met them before this very moment, but they feel like they have always been there, perhaps hidden, all this while, in the folds of the curtains in your room, waiting for you to recognise the visible <g data-gr-id="115">invisibilities</g>? This is what ‘K K Ramanujan’, the protagonist of this particular work feels, when he encounters the self-proclaimed Kannada poet, ‘A K Ramanujan’ in Chicago; and this is how I felt when I encountered them in this work.
After their open-mouthed wonder at the similarities between each other, beyond the difference of one letter in their initials, passes, they realise that these similarities stretch beyond just that of their names. They have similar roots, their families come from similar places (Mysore, D Subbayya road to be exact), they are both in this new, strange land (America), encountering each other’s names, and the identities that follow, or are contained within them.
To make things even stranger, ‘A K Ramanujan’ within this work asks ‘K K Ramanujan’ to start writing an autobiography in Kannada and send to him over time, to comment on. This zeal to do just that comes from a very deep rooted anxiety of forgetting, his language, and the spaces that he comes from, for <g data-gr-id="137">K K</g> Ramanujan. Something that I’m sure has, and
continues to affect ‘Indians’ away from home. In this sense perhaps, this is also a work that reveals the very nature of loss, and the attempts one makes, or attempts to make, to hold on to the past, to the self that cannot return home, and is left to create it for him-/herself in their current location.
In an almost Borgesian sense, the two <g data-gr-id="114">Ramanujans</g> are left to meet through their common tongue – Kannada – and the spaces that the language holds, and engenders from, within its centre. But here too, like in Borges’ works, the two characters remark upon this moment. A K Ramanujan on receiving one of the first chapters of <g data-gr-id="139">K K</g> Ramanujan’s ‘autobiography’ replies, saying:
‘When I first met you, I too had an uneasy feeling about our identical names. It was like Narcissus seeing his own reflection. Do you know the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo? Narcissus looked into a pool of water, and seeing his own reflection for the first time, fell in love with his own image. When he tries to make love to his own reflection, he fell in and drowned. He was oblivious of Echo, the beautiful girl who loved him.
Mourning the loss of Narcissus, she wasted away disappearing as an echo. Be careful Ramanuja! You too have an element of Narcissus in you – otherwise, why would you write an autobiography and send it to me?<g data-gr-id="124">’</g> (262)
Why, indeed. <g data-gr-id="136">K K</g> decides to make the autobiography function through memory, and not just his own. His mother, his father, the people he encounters, all appear in this work to speak, not for him, but through him, because, to him, as I’m sure some of you will agree, this ‘I’ that writes his/her own story cannot exist by itself. It works through the people we encounter in our day to day wanderings, the people who have seen, and helped us grow, and more often than not, the people who, once we’ve encountered them, change everything about us that we held dear up to that moment.
These are the encounters that shape our identities. We are not one person, at any given moment, and the split visibility of the two <g data-gr-id="116">Ramanujans</g> in this work makes that all too apparent. In this sense, it comes as no surprise, in particular, that A K Ramanujan, the author, decides to call this work Someone Else’s Autobiography, because if you and I were to do the same, write about our lives, do you really think it is only our lives that we would be writing about? What if we are all trying to understand the self, this ‘I’, through all our encounters, and the one thing that holds us on the same level – in somewhat of an understanding with one another - is that if we did, indeed, undertake a project such as the one K K Ramanujan (the character), or A K Ramanujan (the author) does, we would all be writing someone else’s autobiography; for truth is oftentimes stranger than fiction, and both, depending on where you’re standing, are merely a state of mind.
This book has changed me, and I hope it affects you too, for in the centre of the novella/autobiography, lies an old myth of the doppelganger, of the person who your friends claim to have seen and thought to be you, or you have encountered in that brief moment where the train opposite to you, passes yours, and thought to yourself – was that me?