How did you first come across the story of the Ramayan, the Sanskrit epic that Hindus revere? Maybe you saw a melodramatic performance in a public ground. Or, perhaps you read the comic books of Amar Chitra Katha. You sat through the interminable soap opera of Ramanand Sagar. Or you read the textbook-like version of Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to hear the stories at the feet of your grandparents. Urban or rural, Hindu or not, the Ramayan is likely to intrude on the life experience of an Indian.
The remarkable thing is, the barebones of its narrative apart, the story lays itself open to myriad interpretations, and one of the finest interpreters of our time is Arshia Sattar. She approaches the Ramayan as a great stream in which the reader can dip in and out, each time uncovering new meanings, with layers of explanations wrapped around individual actions.
In Lost Loves, a short collection of interwoven essays about the Ramayan and its central characters, Sattar explores what drove the individuals at the heart of the epic to act the way they did. She is eminently qualified for such an intellectual inquiry. She translated the Ramayan from Sanskrit in 1996, and did not camouflage the text by using euphemism. She laid bare the nuanced dilemmas there, and in the new collection of essays, she mediates on the individual decisions, and how they were made. Why did Dasharath allow his love for Kaikeyi to trump his duty towards Ram? Why did Ram require Sita to undergo the trial by fire even when he trusted her? This division—between personal anguish and public duty—is at the heart of Sattar’s inquiry. She reflects on Ram’s pain and vulnerability, making him human; she also shows Sita’s firmness—reminding us that she wasn’t a docile character.
Pop take: A still from Nina Paley’s animation filmSita Sings the Blues. Nina Paley/Sitasingstheblues.com
I have known Arshia Sattar from my time at college a few decades ago, and she brings a refreshing, eclectic scholarship to the epic most Indians, irrespective of faith, consider holy. That means it gets placed on a pedestal, and most people end up knowing little about it beyond the basic plot.
Lost Loves—Exploring Rama’s Anguish: Penguin India, 145 pages, Rs 250.
Sattar probes deeply into the motivations and actions of characters, psychoanalysing and humanizing them, while recognizing the solace the characters provide to the devout. Hindu gods and goddesses are kept on an elevated plane, but she reminds us they are sometimes unaware of their powers. They can act nobly, and sometimes, because of their flaws, harshly—think of Amit Chaudhuri’s short story about the physical mutilation of Surpanakha.
There are many interpretations and variations of the Ramayan precisely because India is a pluralistic society, and no singular view prevails. It is the messiness of that pluralism that Hindutva activists dislike. The transformation of Ram into a monolithic icon is a recent political project, which culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
As a correspondent at India Today magazine, I went to interview former prime minister Morarji Desai, who lived in retirement at a seafront apartment in Mumbai. Desai had written about Hinduism, and he was troubled by the agitation. With characteristic bluntness, he told me: “They are making Hinduism into what it is not. They want a pluralistic faith to become monotheistic—with one book, Ramayana; one holy place of worship, Ayodhya; and one god to revere, Rama.” That, to him, was not Hinduism.
Within three years of our conversation, a Hindu mob had razed the Babri Masjid. Transforming a multilayered relationship between the devotee and the divine into a simplistic, hierarchical arrangement was one of the major successes of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The Hindutva project wanted a simpler narrative. In 2008, the University of Delhi prescribed an essay by the late poet A.K. Ramanujan, called Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation. The BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, stormed the history department, protesting against “blasphemy”, a notion alien to Hinduism. Beyond India, the story gets transformed even more, in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, challenging the singular chronicle that the Hindutva activists believe in, where masculinity is valourized, and playfulness seen as weakness—a point Martha Nussbaum astutely notes in her study of Hindutva, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Ram’s overt masculinity troubles some academics, and the cliché-ridden femininity of Sita bothers others, like Nabaneeta Deb Sen and Madhu Kishwar. Nina Paley’s delightful animation film, Sita Sings the Blues, decodes the Ramayan in the 20th century, in which Sita is an emotional, assertive, sensuous woman, and Ram doesn’t mind pressing her feet when she is tired.
It is in that lively tradition of critical commentary and reinterpretation that Sattar’s Lost Loves resides. She has reclaimed the Ramayan. Sita is a woman of substance and Ram, torn by conflicting notions of duty, is trying to get it right. “And in his failure and crushing personal defeats we understand the meaning of our lives… If we see Rama as one of us, the Ramayana becomes more poignantly a story that explores the human condition rather than one that stridently declares the unimpeachable nature of divinity,” she writes. That may not fit the Hindutva project, but it is closer to the spirit of the epic.
IN SIX WORDS
When divine love and duty collide
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