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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
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Friday 18 October 2013
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.
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