Ramayana: Before He Was God
Rupa Rs 995 | pp 326
The favourite passages in this book is the first eight lines that start the ‘Bhadrapada’ chapter: “Shoorpnakha wasn’t her real name/ Her mother once chided her/ For not paring her nails,/ Letting them grow big like a ‘shoorp’,/ A receptacle for winnowing grain,/ And called her Shoorpnakha; the name stuck, her brothers/ Fondly teased her by that name.”
This act of humanising a character from The Ramayana — Valmiki’s Ramayana and the many versions that came after it, in the name of it, and veering away from it — is a profoundly aesthetic function that former bureaucrat Ram Varma serves in his patient and, above all, pleasurable Ramayana: Before He Was God. In the acknowledgements and the prologue, Varma tells the reader what he has set out to do: clean up the ancient text to present the “fundamental truths” underlying episodes he found difficult to understand. He does that with verve.
Varma puts the narrative in a ‘historical’ in which the characters are treated as real. Interspersed with watery illustrations of episodes by Vandana Sehgal, Varma takes out the ‘anachronisms’ — later Vedic interpolations such as the ‘Sita’s agni-pariksha episode (here, Sita is sent to exile at Valmiki’s ashram) — and brings us Ram’s story unencumbered by later ‘interpretations’. This, then, is a story of a man, before he was morphed into something altogether else.
Ishan Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer