Can't believe I forgot to post today's column! Apologies!
I have to confess I’m a Rama sceptic. I prefer the Mahabharata to the Ramayana. I say this with head slightly hung, because there’s no real basis for this prejudice. I haven’t read anything except Rajaji’s version for children, Chinmayananda’s Bala Ramayana, a few Amar Chitra Kathas and stories my grandmother told me when I was a child. I’ve never attended Ramkathas or Rama Navami lectures. Despite having read A.K.Ramajujan’s illuminating essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, I have never been tempted to re-read the epic.
All of this is why I find myself still amazed that for months now I have been listening to a new version of the Ramayana. Shanta Rameshwar Rao is an educator and a writer of children’s stories. One day, she told me she’d written a version of the story for children and wanted to test drive it with a few interested people. Since I was avoiding telling my son any Rama stories, I was conscious of the gap in his education – which included addressing the less-than-perfect aspects of Rama and the epic itself. I thought this was a good opportunity to introduce him to the story while also passing the buck to someone more competent.
Since Shantamma began reading her version last December, the audience has changed, grown or been reduced, but my son and I have been steadfast listeners. Last Saturday, we reached the point in the story when Rama prepares for war. Hanuman has returned from Lanka, confirming that he’s met Sita and given her the ring. But the chapter begins in a very unwarlike way: Sugreeva is lying drunk and dreaming in his room and Lakshmana has to wake him and remind him of his promise to help Rama.
The most interesting moments in this chapter, though, describe Rama at the sea shore. Standing there, facing the sea, Rama is conscious of his godhead. He imagines he can wave his hand and command the sea to retreat so that his passage to Lanka is clear. He is all arrogance at first and rage afterwards when he realises that the sea will not obey. Sugreeva tells him he needs to pray and Rama performs penances. Still the sea is indifferent. Furious, Rama shoots into the sea the powerful arrows Vishwamitra once gave him.
The sea boils and throws up agonised and dying sea monsters – rare, wonderful creatures, described in loving detail. They come up, airing their strange eyes and tentacles and expire on the waves. It is Sugreeva, drunk and unkingly at the beginning of the chapter, who tells Rama that the sea cannot be commanded, that it is a force of nature, an entity without which we cannot survive and that all life forms are connected. He suggests that Rama, in all humility ask Samudra for help in crossing his domain.
This a penitent Rama does and in the most magnificent part of the chapter, Samudra rises from his underwater throne to greet Rama. He is an awe-inspiring figure, decked out in pearls and corals. Rama apologises for the destruction he has caused and Samudra blesses him and agrees to help him cross into Lanka.
Yes, this is a 21st century, environmentally conscious version, but it’s not preachy and is unafraid of complexity. Rama’s behaviour is not only shown to be inexcusable, it is given to Sugreeva – the flawed, weak king he supported against Vali – to point out his failings to him as they stand on the seashore. We question Rama’s godliness, even his awareness of it, and what it means to be godly when it shows itself in erratic and destructive actions.
Uniquely, Shantamma takes us underwater, to briefly see the world above from a different perspective. It is a moving but clever section that makes one wonder at the actions of the entire human race.
Listening to her read, I understood the attraction of Ramkathas and the great pleasure there is in listening to stories told or read aloud, in simple language that masks great depth and interpretative power. I now appreciate the skills of the narrator who can assess the mood of her audience and interpolate her own narration with witty asides, so that one is involved and interested to the end.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)