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Rendezvous with Ramayanas

Putting too much premium in ‘original texts' is missing the storytelling for the plot, writes Indrajit Hazra.

books Updated: Aug 05, 2008 15:01 IST
Indrajit Hazra

What is it about this mad scramble for authenticity? One would think one is talking about a Rolex watch. The whole business of quoting the Ramayana to find out what it says about the Ram Sethu (‘Did it exist?' ‘Was it destroyed?' ‘Is it sacred even if it was destroyed?') forgets the fact that the scriptures are still literary texts. If it was the Bible, one would have still understood the whole brouhaha.

After all, a people of the Book have to stick by a Book - and a fight over whether the Gospel of St Matthew or that of St John (or the contentious Gospel of Judas) is the Real McCoy becomes a difficult choice to make. But 'indooism methought was all about playfulness, about the simultaneous juggling of the same story being presented in a million narratives, all of them existing like parallel universes in harmony like Bob Kane's ‘original' Batman and Frank Miller's brilliant ‘recasting' of the caped crusader.

So when Senior Counsel of the central government Fali Nariman quoted the Kamba Ramayana, a version of Valmiki's magnus opus by the 6th century Tamil poet Kamban, to convince the Supreme Court that Ram had destroyed the bridge the vanar sena had made, to argue that the Sethusamudran Canal Project can go ahead without hurting any Hindu sentiments, I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting. Now will someone fight over the veracity of Shakespeare's Macbeth considering that the playright's play about the Scottish thane with a pushy wife was borrowed wholesale from the 16th century Holinshed's Chronicles?"

But then there came the revelation that Nariman, not exactly the fount of knowledge when it comes to 9th century epic Tamil verse, got it wrong. Tamil scholars angrily stated that Kamban had written no such thing (and nei ther did Valmiki). To which I thought, "Hmm, does it matter? I'm sure someone can pull out some version of the Ramayana in which Ram ordered the destruction of the sethu Bridge on the River Kwai-style."

Which brings me to advertise the fact that texts, and especially mythic texts, cannot be held hostage to that bogeyman called authenticity That is the beauty of . myths; that is the beauty of literature. Every one adds and subtracts their bits without destroying the creature.

Coming back to the Ramayan, to stick to Valmiki's narrative may be sticking to the most endearing and popular version. But to say that a folk version of the epic is ‘wrong' just because it has Sita not only as Ravana's daughter but also as being born from Ravana's' nose via the Lankan king's sneeze, is like saying that the only genuine television version of the Ramayana is that by Ramanand Sagar.

The German legend of Faust, about a man who makes a pact with the devil, was most notably tailored in a tale by Goethe. Before the German poet took a crack at the story, English playwright Christopher Marlowe had his The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus - the same ‘mother' story written in Marlowe's own style and tale. Thomas Mann later took the ‘Faust' story and fashioned it into his own early 20th century tale, Doktor Faustus. In all cases, the writers were using the same story to push their favoured buttons and peddle individual subtexts. To consider that the German legend is the only authentic Faust narrative is missing the storytelling for the plot.

The supreme irony, of course, is that both parties in the Ram Sethu case are quoting two scriptures. As N.S. Jagannathan writes in his introduction to the English translation of The Kamba Ramayana (Penguin), though Valmiki's version is called the Adi Kavya - the first epic - "it is certainly not the first version of the Ramayana." He mentions how in Valmiki's version, the sage asks Narada who, in the present world, is the ideal man (purushotama) and Narada tells him the virtues, "in a hundredodd verses" of Rama.

Which, of course, proves nothing. Valmiki may be the postmodern chap slinking in a madeup Narada bit just for fun. The way Nariman slipped in a lie for artistic legitimacy somewhere, sometime different.