Faber & Faber, £18.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Ramayana: A Retelling, By Daljit Nagra

For all the slang and swagger, this bold new version of the Hindu epic keeps its moral core intact

The Ramayana is regarded as the greatest of all devotional Hindu epics, alongside the Mahabharata. So it takes a brave poet to rework it with the audacity Daljit Nagra employs. "The Ramayana I present now is not the one I was told as a child," he writes in his introduction.

This revisionist endeavour brings with it the risk of censure from those who hold the ancient Sanskrit story sacrosanct, as well as the risk of indifference from those who question its contemporary relevance. So what does Nagra achieve?

Rather a lot, it turns out it, in his rollicking, often rude and riveting version of an epic that is as much an instruction manual on how to live as a graphic adventure narrative of war. This is, first, not a faithful retelling but a high-octane mythology redux which makes a conscious effort to be contemporary, It uses street parlance, hybrid Punjabi and a visual onomatopoeia achieved by different fonts, styles and spellings ("BASTARRDDDDS YOOOOO ALLL SHUTTTING UPPP" represents a shout, while verses on flying spears are shaped as this weapon arching across the sky). More radical - and less gimmicky – is its crude humour and racy sexuality. There are obscenities in Punjabi; libidinous characters crave "gigolo action"; women are "totty", warriors "top dogs", while demons are "randy" or "cruising to be bruising".

Violence appears vivid, modern, almost celluloid, rather than the kind that belongs in an ancient epic. While noses and nipples are sliced off, heads speared and bodies ripped apart by arrows, great armies appear on the horizon in the same multiplying scale as Mr Smith's android army in The Matrix, and warriors have special deadly powers as imaginative as those found in The Incredibles. A monkey can shrink or grow his way out of peril; a demon's son can become invisible on the battlefield; another monkey can absorb the strength of its enemy. Meanwhile, a fireball flies through the "billion galaxies" to the battlefield with the futuristic adrenalin rush of an SF movie.

Those more familiar with Homeric rather than Hindu tradition will spot parallels across the epics. The battle here, just as in the Iliad, is partly fought over a woman, and just as Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, here Sita, the wife of protagonist, Rama, is abducted by Raavana, lord of the underworld. There is even a deadly Circe-like seductress who "Whilst she dances your ears will fill with erotic song."

But where Valmiki's text differs from Homer's is in its philosophy. For alongside the sex and violence there is also spirituality, and moral lessons. These elements of the original remain intact despite Nagra's modern vernacular. Rama's odyssey – from exile to war and finally to freedom - is also an inner quest, for the triumph of reason over passion, order over chaos and ultimately, peace over violence. In his most troubled times, Rama chants mantras to muster an inner focus and even in these embattled moments, the same morality applies: "We are here to fight the good fight… Only if we are true can we truly win."

Bonds between sons and fathers are strong and binding, as are those between husband and wife, but the most meaningful relationship in Nagra's Ramayana is between brothers. Rama refuses to take up arms against his brother, Bharat, however keenly he feels his exile. While brothers in other worlds turn on each other, Rama, the mortal who surprises the gods by defeating the demon of the underworld, holds strong to his search for peace, inner as well as outer, even in the thick of battle.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living