With parents named Ram Chandra and Ram Pyari “to whom Rama was a Reality”, it was natural for Ram Varma to come out with his own version of the ancient tale. He pares off what he considers to be “interpolations” to project his vision of Rama. Not a bad vision really. Rama is the hero, Ravana is the villain. There is no tampering with the basics. The cosmetic changes, however, are interesting.
In tune with Valmiki
Writers before him have tried to fill in the blanks about the domestic life of Rama and Sita. Less than half-a-century ago we had the Telugu poet, Viswanadha Satyanarayana writing about the conjugal felicity of Sita and Rama in his epic, Sri Ramayana Kalpavrukshamu. Thus, the details of a married couple in love in this book are very much in tune with Valmiki's story-line. Of the other changes, mention ought to be made of Kaikeyi using a play within the play (as in Shakespeare's Hamlet) to discover the intentions of Dasaratha in handing over the crown to Rama. Ironically, a hack named Kritinidhi writes the mischievous script for the Dushyanta story.
In Ram Varma's narration, printed in three columns, there is no poetry as such and we even get a hiccup when Dasaratha bursts out: “O God, it's all been mucked up!” It is a relief that Ram Varma has avoided the fire-ordeal and has Rama himself go to the Ashoka Vana and tell Sita of Ravana's death.
“I feel bad
It took us so much time
To reach here, and kill the foe.
But he's dead and we meet at last,
Nothing is lost, come, let's go.”
All is well till Rama himself overhears a commoner speaking derisively of Ayodhya's king. The familiar scenario at Valmiki's asrama gets new colours with the appearance of Sita's ‘real' mother Rohini, the birth of the twins, the return of Sita as Rama's queen, and her peaceful death. “Many a man have come and gone/ There was never a man like Rama.”
Ram Varma has tried hard to show Rama as a mortal like any one of us. We read with engagement but not involvement, as Valmiki is always hovering near us with his last laugh. Ravana, of course, appears even worse, especially when he calls the good Mandodari an ‘old hag' who does nothing but nag him. We get a philosophical disquisition on why Kumbhakarna preferred sleep to sex and more such important sizzlers within the framework of 12 chapters that begin with ‘Chaitra' and conclude with ‘Phalguna.'
None of the novel changes has affected Vandana Sehgal, who has provided the illustrations, in her choice of scenes. The plates include: Janaka finding the baby while tilling the soil; Dasaratha in his court announcing his retirement; Bharat receiving Rama's sandals; Sita in Asokavana looking up at Hanuman — all the scenes so closely etched in our psyche down the centuries. By using light colours and preferring to merge the human/vanara/rakshasa figures with the vastness of nature, she gives plenty of elbow room for our imagination to unfurl panoramas on its own.
An interesting author's note on the changes is a helpful appendage. He would rather see Rama as an ideal human being and not as an incarnation. Ravana for him is “a king of the Dravidian stock”, perhaps a Gond. As for Mareecha, Surpanakha and others, there was nothing supernatural about them. He has also “grounded” the Pushpaka aircraft to realise his objective, “the de-mythification and de-mystification of the epic.” Actually, this gorgeous publication only proclaims the sublimity of Valmiki's epic that continues to sustain our culture even in the 21st century!