Review: The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao by Lindsay Pereira - Hindustan Times

Review: The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao by Lindsay Pereira

BySyed Saad Ahmed
Mar 01, 2024 10:53 PM IST

A crisp novel, an adaptation of the Ramayana set in riot-struck 1990s Bombay, tells the story of contemporary India

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana can be rather unidimensional in the popular imagination — a triumphalist account of good over evil almost verging on a “happily-ever-after”-style fairytale ending. I have always found the epics’ amenability to interpretation fascinating, even if it means that people use them to jump to all sorts of conclusions. When I was 10, a classmate told me that the key message of both texts is that women are the root of all evil and wars. However, it is to this offering up of multiple meanings that we owe the profusion of the epics’ adaptations across millennia, nations, and languages, and also their enduring relevance.

Firemen attempt to stop fires raging in Malad, Mumbai, on January 13, 1993. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Firemen attempt to stop fires raging in Malad, Mumbai, on January 13, 1993. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

269pp, ₹599; Penguin
269pp, ₹599; Penguin

There are numerous contemporary novels, movies, and television series that reference the Ramayana, but how Lindsay Pereira’s The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao draws upon the text is spectacular. I must confess that, as I began reading the novel, the references weren’t immediately obvious to me. It was only after a couple of pages that I noticed the connection, which made the reading experience even more delightful.

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In the novel’s prologue, we meet Valmiki Rao, “unshaven, crabby, and smelling like a wet dog”. When the 72-year-old retired postman sees Ramu lying torpid under a staircase in their chawl, Ganga Niwas, in Mumbai, he is reminded of events from the early 1990s that brought Ramu to this state. His recollections of that time form the crux of his memoir, which languishes in his trunk unknown and unpublished.

As Valmiki narrates the story of Ramu and other denizens of the building, we get a glimpse of life in Mumbai’s tenements. Even as they eke out an existence in cramped rooms, their way of life is increasingly under threat from real estate development. Chawls, built largely from the 19th century onwards to house migrants working in the city’s mills and factories, have often been romanticised in Bollywood films as communitarian havens. Valmiki does not subscribe to these rosy visions. He talks about community life but also the lack of running water, shared stinking toilets, petty quarrels, and thin walls that do not afford privacy. For him, Mumbai is a cutthroat and callous place rather than a “city of dreams”.

Against this backdrop, Valmiki finds the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the early 1990s baffling. He cannot understand why people in the city are so riled up about Ayodhya, a place most have never been to, and are raring to build a temple over a mosque there. But the triumphalism over the mosque’s destruction is short-lived. Rumours and riots engulf the city, setting off a disastrous sequence of events for Ramu, his love Janaki, his arch enemy Ravi Anna, Ganga Niwas, and its neighbouring chawl, Sri Niwas. As their world collapses, the party cadres, who had fuelled the fire in the months leading up to the incident and had vowed to protect them, are nowhere to be found.

Even as several lives came undone, others quickly moved on. For as Valmiki reminisces, “What had nostalgia done for any of them when the past was as dismal as the present and as devoid of hope as the future?”

Valmiki, as the omniscient narrator, ties the story together. He is amusingly cranky, yet perceptive and compassionate. The transitions between the narration to dialogues and the interiority of the sundry characters are seamless. Despite his laments about the internecine sectarian violence and the injustices the characters suffer, the novel does not come across as preachy.

In the retelling, the author includes major and minor characters from the Ramayana, enmeshing their personalities and motivations in Mumbai’s sociopolitical milieu. Pivotal plot points, such as Hanuman building a bridge to Lanka, Sita’s trial by fire, and her crossing the enclosure meant to protect her, have striking analogues. In these respects, I found it similar to Shashi Tharoor’s 1989 work, The Great Indian Novel, which takes inspiration from the Mahabharata to narrate a satirical tale of political scheming spanning key events from the Indian independence struggle to the Emergency of the 1970s.

Author Lindsay Pereira
Author Lindsay Pereira

Many contemporary adaptations of the epics either experiment with formats or perspectives, focus on one character or incident, or craft a gargantuan series to encompass their formidable length. Pereira, however, sweeps the whole text and its primary concerns while packaging it as a crisp, almost pacy novel.

Where I wish it had significantly departed from the Ramayana is in its depiction of female characters. They mostly come across as receptacles of men’s actions and affections, devoid of any agency, except when inflicting miseries upon people. We get to know more of Janaki in comparison to the other women, but it is still nowhere close to the attention lavished on the men. This, however, is easier said than done, considering the constraints an adaptation imposes.

All in all, the novel artfully translates an ancient tale to tell the story of contemporary India.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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