In 1986 the Ramayana – Ramanand Sagar’s version of it – aired on Doordarshan. And the nation fell in love with it. India Today labelled this phenomenan ‘Ramayana fever’ and there were enough and more articles on how the show, which aired at 9.30am on Sundays, brought life to a virtual standstill across the country. The show even earned a place in the Limca Book of Records as the World’s Most Viewed Mythological Serial, a title it held until 2003.
A later remake by Zee TV was met with (much) less enthusiasm. But we can’t say the same about the number of books that chronical the life and times of this Prince of Ayodhya and his accomplices.
Unlike Sagar’s TV serial, which was as true to Valmiki’s version as possible, these books are modern day reinterpretations. They mix themes, stray into other genres and are even told from a feminist view point.
One of my favourites is an eight-part series written by Ashok Banker. It’s a fantastical retelling, which the Hindustan Times describes as a ‘Star Wars-type’ story. Here, Ram and Lakshman are taught the secrets of a universal energy source called Brahmaan, which gives them almost superhuman powers that help them defeat demons. It’s a rich and detailed story that brings the epic to life so vividly. Funnily enough, when Banker presented the manuscript to publishers in India, he was rejected several times over; it was then picked up by an international publisher and only later made it to Indian shores. Collectively, Banker’s books (he’s also chronicled the Mahabharata and Krishna’s life) have sold 1.2 million copies in 56 countries.
An even more modern take is Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana: A Retelling. Giving the story a 21st century update – in terms of presentation – Nagra’s version is at times bawdy for he uses street vernacular and even Punjabi swear words. Women are called totty (British slang for sexually desirable women), warriors are top dogs and demons are described as ‘cruising to be bruising’. There is gore galore as well. But despite its ultra-modern narration style, the book still brings alive the spirituality and moral lessons that are at the heart of Valmiki’s story. Bonds between brothers, and fathers and sons are strong and Ram’s desire for peace in the mental and mortal realms is highlighted. Arifa Akbar of the Independent even draws parallels between the Ramayana and Homer’s Illiad, in that both stories narrate epic battles fought over women.
Sita at Valmiki’s Ashram
But if you want to know how the women of the Ramayana felt, first read Sita’s Ramayana. A graphic novel illustrated by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar and written by Samhita Arni, it tells Sita’s story after her rescue from Lanka. Based on folk tales narrated to Chitrakar by her Bengali grandmother, it focuses on Sita’s humiliation and sad banishment as well as the futility of war. And Ram is not painted as a champion of war here. The book, released in July 2011, made it to the New York Times bestseller list in the Hardcover Graphic Books category in just three months.
Follow it up with Arni’s solo novel, The Missing Queen, where she explores the story of Sita through the eyes of others.
There’s also Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana, where the author dares us to imagine that perhaps Sita was violated. But does that mean the punishment she received was just?
If the Telugu author Volga’s The Liberation of Sita (translated in English by T Vijay Kumar) is read, this punishment and banishment leads to her ultimate liberation. She comes into her own, discovering her own identity and character and decides that she needs no one, not even her husband, to feel complete.
There are also other viewpoints to read. What did Urmila, the abandoned wife of Lakshman, and Sita’s sister go through? How did she cope? Kavita Kane’s book Sita’s Sister is a bold story, told through the eyes of the scholarly Urmila, who’s take on dharma has a rather feminist undertone. ‘But is there no dharma of the husband for his wife? No dharma of the son for his mother? Is it always about the father, sons and brothers?’ she asks in the book.
Another voice that offers a different version of the Ramayan is that of Raavan’s. In Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan, we are given a glimpse into the life of the fierce lord of Lanka, his rise to power and his point of view on his ultimate defeat.
Each story of the Ramayana, though fictionalised, keeps intact the themes of the original an introduces more – making each of them refreshingly and imminently readable.
Liked this article? Also read: Indian Folk Tales That Would Make Great Movies