A ripping effort in which 24 writers take off on our epic.
Twenty-four (not 25, as the blurb promises) writers and a single brief: to take off on the Ramayana. This is speculative fiction, based on the what-if premise, as editor Vandana Singh puts it. “The epics come in many diverse versions, but diversity is not novelty. We need the novum for wonder, and that is precisely what tradition cannot offer,” says her co-editor Anil Menon.
The premise, when we consider his word “novum”, is that speculation should be validated by cognitive logic. Down the ages, our epics have been approached variously as myth, moral, metaphor, treatise, fantasy and religious parable; they’ve already been deconstructed and re-framed. What’s heartening is that the book comes when ridiculous rigidity and parochialism are seeping into the world, and we need all the help to get back to being comfortable with our legacy, to read them as we see fit. “One of the great freedoms of Hinduism is surely the lack of a Big-Brother-style religious police,” says Menon. And that’s the best thing about this book, the reiteration of that fact.
It’s a ripping effort, and many of the writers have fun with their stories. And which is when the stories really work. Since our ancient tales already talk about many worlds and universes, time travel and space machines, most writers here resort to the current terminology and topography of science fiction to clothe their tales. Strictly speaking, speculative fiction should be concerned with fiction itself, not merely changing its clothes. Changing the backdrop of a play for each showing is not the same as changing the premise of the play.
The one that left me stunned was the one in Lavanya Karthik’s ‘Day of the Deer’. That Sita could be a Trojan horse, planted to usher in a better world order, yes, that’s the stuff of speculation! Gently narrated, the story achieves more than customary feminist retellings.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane’s ‘Sita to Vaidehi: Another Journey’ is an equally engaging tale about tribals and social activism. Swapna Kishore’s ‘Regressions’ interestingly explores the possibility of tweaking the past from the present/future, redoing scenarios in the face of conflicting ideology. She, as most of them, pits the feminine perspective against cruel patriarchy.
The reversals in the book reflect two posits: the female as hero and the rakshasa/tribal as victim. And poor Rama always bears the brunt. The most crushing attack comes from Kuzhali Manickavel. While the world is shrieking against injustice, Rama’s benign refrain continues: “Hope everyone’s having a good day,” hurting more than direct hits. Her droll Ramayana reality show is a high springboard.
Abirami Velliangiri’s ‘Great Disobedience’ and Tabish Khair’s ‘Weak Heart’ effectively present two astounding propositions while American writer Julie Rosenthal comes up with a sad and lyrical tale on the side-lines of forest exile. Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Mandodari’ gives us a couple of hilarious moments with TV anchor Bosra Dott astutely framing her for public consumption. Of the two stories set in Bangkok (one of the world’s Ramayana spaces), ‘Machanu Visits the Underworld’ is a rollercoaster fantasy set in a converted cinema showing the khon dance.
The science fiction is elaborately constructed and populated, like Neelanjana Banerjee’s ‘Exile’ that yet goes beyond the technical to reach the heart. That’s what successful SF does, and in Indrapramit Das’s ‘Sita’s Descent’, we can gauge the imaginative triumph of this collection. Editor Vandana Singh’s story is a future day revenge tale that draws parallels: “But Hirasor had stolen my whole world, as surely as Ravan stole Sita.”
It’s probably a measure of the editors’ acumen and passion that none of the stories disappoint. If you do feel hedged in by thick forests and machinery, there’s always some light coming up: Pratap Reddy’s amusing mystery, Sharanya Manivannan’s poetic tryst, Shweta Narayan’s cleverly constructed tale of an Indian triangle in the U.S. and Molshree Ambastha’s ‘Kalyug Amended’ (which editor Menon mistakenly refers to as Why Me?, calling it “the heartfelt, irony-free style characteristic of Ramlilas”, when actually it’s a Hindi film remix, though he’s right that it “perhaps has the best last line”).
P.S. Wonder why no one thought of presenting Rama’s trauma (he being both man and god); it would have completed the picture.
Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana; Ed. Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, Zubaan Rs.395.