A.K. RAMANUJAN: The Old Woman and Her Keys

A.K. Ramanujan enlarged the very concept of literature by telling us that people do not express themselves only in written forms but also in the spoken and the sung.

“He has set out this idea in a series of highly regarded scholarly papers and most recently in his introduction to that marvellous book Folktales from India. Every Ramanujam preface has something new and profound. His footnotes becomes other people’s headings.

“In this particular introduction he tells us of an old woman who is searching for something in the street. A passerby asks her what she is looking for.

“Keys, she says. Any idea where you could have lost them, he asks. Probably in the house, she answers. Then why are you searching for them here, the man asks, puzzled.

“And the old woman answers: ‘Because I can see better out here, under the street light, for I have no oil in my lamp in the house’.”


Ramanujan uses this as a parable for the nature of the general mass of indological studies. People who want to understand Indian civilisation, he remarks, “look for it under the light, in Sanskrit, in written texts… in the well-lit public places of the culture.” He wants us now to move indoors, into the expressive culture of the household, to look for our keys.”


Excerpted from The Book I Won’t be Writing and Other Essays by H.Y. Sharada Prasad, DC Books, 2003