As the back cover points out, “The Ramayana” ‘is, quite simply, the greatest of Indian epics’. It was first put in writing between 1500 and the fourth century B.C., but it has been adapted and retold many times, each storyteller offering a slightly different version in the intent to accommodate the tale to one’s demands and preferences. This version, told by R.K. Narayan, is based on the Tamil version written by Kamban (the original is in Sanskrit, instead). Narayan (1906 – 2001) has been one of the greatest Indian writers in English and he is still one of the country’s favourites. His contribution to the Indian novel in English predates Salman Rushdie by almost fifty years, his first novel “Swami and Friends” being written in 1935. He has written books on Indian legends and epic sagas that are still wildly read and offer a decent introduction to a story that is larger than life. Narayan’s book is a shortened prose adaptation and those who are looking for a rich version of the story with all its strands and descriptions should look somewhere else. His writing is not without charms, however.
The story is well known: Rama, the favourite son of the King of Ayodhya and an incarnation of the god Vishnu, is married to Sita, whom he has conquered by managing to wield the incredibly heavy bow of god Shiva owned by her father, the King of Mithila. Rama is destined not to live in peace, however. In fact, his stepmother plots against him and manages to send him into exile in the woods for twelve years. The forest being a rather dangerous place, the couple, accompanied by Rama’s brother Lakshmana, have a hideous encounter with a demon, a rakshasa woman who tries to seduce Rama and is disfigured by Rama’s brother in punishment. As a consequence, her brother Ravana plots to abduct Sita, by sending another demon disguised as a golden deer to distract Rama and his brother. Ravana tries to conquer Sita’s heart, but she sternly waits for her husband to set her free. Rama in the meantime has formed an alliance with Hanuman, a monkey hero. Rama learns from a vulture that Sita is in the island of Lanka, so Hanuman crosses the sea and spies on Ravana. After a war between Ravana and Rama’s forces, Sita is freed. Her trials are not ended, though, because her husband seems cold and distant. This is because he is not sure that Ravana has not touched her, therefore she proposes to undergo a trail by fire. Sita, eager to prove her innocence, steps into the fire and is protected by Agni, the god of fire. Narayan’s adaptation ends with Rama and Sita going back to Ayodhya after the end of their period of exile, thus omitting a part of the tale that the author considers not popular enough and, always according to him, a later addition to the story.
The most interesting and controversial part of the epic, the trial by fire, is dealt with rather briskly, whereas other parts are described at length with evident gusto. Sometimes I found Sita annoying, for example when she insists that her husband should catch the golden deer for her, even though he suspects that it is just a trick from s demon, as golden deer notoriously don’t exist. I guess that the whole concept of duty (dharma actually) is explored in the epic, but for a “modern”, western mind it is not easy to grasp.
Another thing that I noticed and that puzzled me is that when Sita offers to prove her purity by entering the fire, Narayan considers that Rama was wrong in not stopping her. The author, in this case, enters the epic tale and makes his own corrections and comments, as many tellers of the story have done in the past. Narayan justifies Rama by claiming that in that moment he didn’t remember he was an avatar of Vishnu. Errare humanum est, Narayan seems to tell us. It is often said that “The Ramayana” is a somehow male chauvinist text, but if we take Narayan’s version for granted it is not so.
I also find Hanuman, the king of the monkey people, an interesting character. I like the parallels between the monkeys’ virtues and values with those same qualities in the human people. These qualities are often highlighted and contrasted with the prejudice and low esteem of the monkey people. As for the prejudices, one clear example is when Ravana is furious because he did not manage to kill “the monkey”, whereas the low esteem of Hanuman and his peers is evident when his army needs someone else (Sampathi, brother to the eagle Jatayu) to tell them that they can take any form they want, thus finding a way to cross the sea to rescue Sita. Some people even suggest that Hamunan and its people are a mythological version of the indigenous inhabitants of the south of India, as a contrast with the northern people of Aryan descent (Rama’s people). This is a fascinated hypothesis, but I wonder if it is a correct interpretation or just some gibberish talk.
Although I already knew bits and pieces of the story, I enjoyed Narayan’s short book. It is an extreme summary for a complex story and the writing is sometimes too stiff for my taste, but it was altogether a pleasant reading experience.