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My 30-year obsession with the Ramayana

Valmiki’s Ramayana is so well-loved that many writers have told it over and over down the centuries. One of its best known translators, Arshia Sattar writes of her 30-year obsession with the epic

books Updated: Oct 11, 2016 11:42 IST
Arshia Sattar
A scene from the Ram Lila performed on 05 October, 2011 at the Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi. 2011 was the centenary year of Ram Lila performances at the venue.
A scene from the Ram Lila performed on 05 October, 2011 at the Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi. 2011 was the centenary year of Ram Lila performances at the venue. (Sonu Mehta)

“You mean she’s been writing about the same book for thirty years?” was how a friend’s teenage daughter reacted to my last book on the Ramayana five years ago. She’s going to be even more surprised now that I have just published a children’s edition of the epic. But it wasn’t until she expressed her astonishment that I realised how odd it must seem that a person could spend the best part of her life with the same story, that too, a story from about two and half thousand years ago, a story that had been told by so many people in so many languages, a story that had been painted and sculpted and sung and danced and performed so extensively and so diversely over the centuries.

And here I must confess that although there are ‘three hundred Ramayanas’, I work only with Valmiki’s text. His is the first version of Rama’s story that we have but it’s also the version that people know the least, perhaps because it’s in Sanskrit. My thirty-year obsession with the Ramayana is thus even stranger − not unlike a scholar spending all their working life reading only the first folio edition of The Tempest.

Like so many other Indians, I first heard the story of the Ramayana at home, in the lap of an old woman who told it with passion and flourish and with many tears and much laughter. I remember being afraid that Ravana would come and carry me off when the lights were out, but I was also enthralled by a tale about kings and noble princes and wicked stepmothers, beautiful, sad, princesses and a wonderful, magical, heroic monkey.

I was in my early 20s when I began to study Ramayana formally. I learned Sanskrit and began to immerse myself in the original text to think about Hanuman – who was this monkey who could fly and speak Sanskrit with an ease that I envied? Part animal, part god, yet wholly human, he is a character we had never before seen in Sanskrit literature. How was he imagined? What did he ‘mean’? Hanuman bhakts will tell you that you cannot reach Rama without going past Hanuman and so it was for me. My questions about Hanuman remain unanswered but the magnificent monkey became my entry point into the fascinating, infinitely complex story about human love and duty and existential choices, a story that holds my 55-year-old self in the same thrall as it did the five-year-old child who listened so earnestly at bedtime.

And now, I must ask myself what is it about Valmiki’s Ramayana that has kept me riveted through most of my adult life. Like all good relationships, this one has not always been easy but it has always been compelling. There are times when the text has frustrated me, its characters have made me angry, its story has seemed one-dimensional. There is much in the text that still disturbs me, but there is also so much in the text that continues to excite me – the fact that it reaches the edges of the human imagination in, for example, the wonders of Hanuman, the subtle suggestions of the darkness in every human heart (Kaikeyi’s harsh demands on the old king to secure her own son’s position or Sita’s inexplicable desire for the golden deer, whether dead or alive), the exploration of the essential conflict between the public and the private self.

Arshia Sattar (Courtesy Juggernaut)

I am constantly told by peers and colleagues and friends that the Mahabharata is the ‘better’ text – it is deeper, more problematic, raises harder questions, depicts humans as real people rather than idealised figures who behave in apparently easy conformity with social and patriarchal expectations. I am often asked how a woman who calls herself a feminist in the 21st century could have any sympathy for a man who made his wife prove her chastity and then abandoned her because of sly town gossip? How could I be even interested in this man who chose his duties as a king over his obligations as a husband? It has been precisely these questions that have kept me glued to the story – for often it’s the things that we don’t entirely understand that bind them to us.

How do we understand Rama, let alone understand the traditions that elevate him to the position of the ‘ideal man’? The problems of the Ramayana are human and they are universal − especially in Valmiki’s Ramayana where Rama is seen as man as much as god. How do we negotiate love and loyalty when they go against what we know to be right and good? Where do we draw the line between obligations to others and being true to ourselves? If the Ramayana suggests that it’s easy to do the right thing (as Rama does), what it does not resolve is how to react when the right thing has horrible consequences, when the results of a right and good act go very, very wrong.

Valmiki’s epic elevates the pitch of these basic, everyday questions by placing them in a story about kings and princes and queens and demons whose private lives must be lived out in public, whose actions and motivations have far-reaching consequences beyond the home and the family. The pitch becomes higher still when these thoughts and deeds and motivations become those of a god acting in the world of humans.

Hanuman meeting Sita at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s Ram Lila in New Delhi on October 20, 2015. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

How we judge the characters in the story and their actions has everything to do with who we are. The same holds true for me. As I have grown and changed, I find that my relationship with the characters in the Ramayana has also changed – my own loves and losses, triumphs and successes have refocused the lens through which I view the actions of Rama and Sita and their companions. Each time I read the Ramayana, I find something new that draws me into its magnetic field, something that tells me as much about myself as it does about the story and how it works in our lives. I used to be mesmerised by Rama’s cruel words to Sita at the end of the war, when he asks her to go to anyone she pleases, even to his brothers. But over the years, I’ve come to think more about Sita’s response to him – her dignity and complete clarity when she tells Rama that if he thinks this of her, then he has not known her at all. This is the Sita that I found in Valmiki years after I thought I knew the text as well as I ever would.

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My mother is convinced that my obsession with the Ramayana is because I was bitten by a monkey when I was three years old. I remember the incident in bits and pieces, fragmentary images of the cage, the baby monkey, the metallic cold of the lab table on which I had to sit for the injection I had to take. Like so many other childhood memories, this one, too, has developed a dream-like quality over the years, changing shape and colour, blurring at the edges, but entirely true in what it can evoke. It’s been a ha-ha story for family and friends, part adventure, part lucky escape, part legend. But now, as I look at my thirty-year relationship with the Ramayana, I have to wonder if my mother was right, after all, that the encounter with the little monkey did leave me with so much more than a small and now long-faded scar. Perhaps the story of my obsession really is that simple.