Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam
M. Veerappa Moily
Translated by CN Ramachandran and others
Rupa Rs1500 PP802
(vol 1) & pp 673 (Vol 2)
In his seminal essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, AK Ramanujan began with three interrogative sentences: "How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand?" Like a city built on layers and sub-layers of human and geographic variations, the Ramayana is an entity that has grown and expanded and contracted and digressed without losing its core 'Ramayana-ness' down the centuries. Even Valmiki's text, stretched and mutated from around the 4th century B.C. is a collation of the stories of Ram placed under one Sanskrit text from which others have sprung.
The latest in this line of Ramayanas is M. Veerappa Moily's Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam, translated into English from Kannada by a team led by C.N. Ramachandran in a magisterial two-volume text. As the title suggests — 'Anveshanam' means 'quest' or 'examination' — Moily's Ramayana is an exploration of the über-narrative of Ram that insists on staying close to the spirit of Valmiki's 'original'. But the author has pressed all the right modernist buttons to also bring us a narrative we can firmly relate to in language and thought.
Moily explores certain scenes through characters by going 'deeper' than in Valmiki's text. At times, we find the author deviating from the 'plot' for a purpose. For instance, we find Mandodari, Ravana's wife, coming to Sita's rescue when the latter, tired of waiting for Ram giving her some attention after returning from exile, attempts suicide. Mandodari pulls her back from the fire and tells Sita: "What are you doing my daughter?/ you have entered fire and you have dragged me also into it./ Isn't the ordeal of fire that all of us, women, go through/ Throughout our lives — isn't it enough?" Moily holds up a facet of Mandodari that was till now buried in most other texts.
This is a book that should be read for its 'amphibious' nature of being a modern interpretation of a religious text as well as a laudable exercise of literary narration.
KN Dixit is a Delhi-based literary critic.