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The Ramayana Of Blushes

KRISHNA PRASAD

Tuesday 19 August 2003, by PRASAD*Krishna

A peppier version of the epic goes where Valmiki didn’t-or couldn’t...

In the epilogue to his classic Ramayana (1957), C. Rajagopalachari recounts a conversation with Gandhiji about a girl dear to both of them. "How did she get all these ideas and phrases of love without having read any of the present-day love stories," asks Rajaji. Gandhiji replies: "But has she not read the Ramayana? Is the Ramayana not a love story too?" The response strikes Rajaji as profound. For centuries, the didactic poem of an unlettered sage has had a variety of attributes-truth, virtue, purity, heroism, perfection, righteousness, dharma, divinity, devotion-attached to its 24,000 verses. And in the second canto of Bala Kanda (verses 36-38), Brahma himself terms the story "sacred and soul-ravishing". Gandhiji’s ’love’ angle makes sense to Rajaji because Dasaratha’s troubles begin with love, and eventually the love of Rama and Sita is the theme and substance of Ayodhya-Kanda. "In love that is not opposed to dharma, we find a manifestation of God," writes Rajaji, and concludes that the Ramayana is undoubtedly a great love story.

In the third year of the third millennium, Ashok Banker, with two ’adult’ novels and an extra ’K’ to his name, tosses a bit of lust into a pot brimming over with "childish abridged versions and stiff-mouthed analyses".

In this, the first of his seven-part retelling of Ramayana, he opens Kaand 1 with the Maharaja of Kosala barging into the palace of his first queen, Rama’s mother. "He moved closer, close enough for her to feel his revived desire growing harder against her thigh. ’Kausalya,’ he whispered in her ear, his breath hot against her cheek. Her knees buckled and gave way. She slipped down, her sari rustling, bangles clinking against each other. She crumpled in a heap at his feet, boneless, breathless. She buried her face in his thighs... "

The second queen, Kaikeyi, gets called a "whore" and "stupid slut" by Manthara, her surrogate mother-cum-nanny. "How long is it since he (Dasaratha) came to you? " asks the hunchback. "Who? " is all a sleepy-eyed Kaikeyi can muster. Retorts Manthara: "Who? Foolish woman, your husband.... How many other men do you share your bed with? "

"Kaikeyi wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a real question or a rhetorical one.... Oh, why had she let that lout at the inn pour all those cups of cheap wine down her throat last night? Ah, but he was such a handsome, well-constructed lout."

Bharath’s mother can also give as good as she gets. She calls Kausalya "hussy", "temptress", "seductress", "a cheap devdasi", "harlot" and "an unnumbered concubine" during one stormy encounter.

The men fare no better at the hands of Banker. In Kaand 2, Lakshman taunts Rama: "You’ll marry Sita when she comes of age! Don’t deny it, bhai. You’ve always had a soft spot for Maharaja Janak’s eldest. Or should I say, a hard spot! "

The Maryada Purushottam, too, is not beyond a cheap shot. After finishing off the rakshasas and completing Vishwamitra’s yagna, Rama suggests a detour and stop at Mithila. "Why Mithila? " asks Lakshman. "So you can smear a little Holi rang on your Urmila’s pretty face," replies Rama. "Or maybe not just on her pretty face."

Admittedly, these are just paragraphs in an otherwise magnificently rendered labour of love. And the Ramayana is "neither history nor biography" but a part of mythology-each reteller puts in his own bit, some even differ on key issues. In Kamban’s Ramayana, Ravana does not physically seize and carry off Sita as Valmiki describes in his. But, surely, a 21st century effort could have done better than reinforcing existing sexist stereotypes?

Yes, there is something called literary licence and yes, Banker prefaces all this with the standard disclaimer that "the names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination". Still, it is difficult not to ask if Banker has not gone too far in pushing the envelope of prudery at a time when the thought police are especially active.

The rat-a-tat story-telling, each chapter ending with a hook-point designed to keep the reader panting for more, is imaginative all right. Valmiki meets Ludlum. But after all the twists, turns, plots and counterplots to destroy "the largest and most vicious army of demons assembled to destroy the mortal planet", Banker’s Rama is still 15.

In spite of all the magic and sorcery and mutant monsters that he deploys, is Banker Rowling? Can the escapades of Ayodhya putra sustain interest like Harry Potter over the next six episodes? Say what you will, Valmiki was a smart cookie. At least he got the entire story down for his time-strapped, attention-challenged readers in the very first chapter. And that was a few millennia ago, when authors made news for words, not digits.

P.S.

pic.:’Prince of Ayodhya Book 1 of the Ramayana’ PUBLISHED BY WARNER BOOKS DISTRIBUTED BY PENGUIN INDIA SPECIAL INDIAN PRICE: ?3.75; PAGES: 389 by Ashok K. Banker

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