Sitting under a tree in Saptaparni on Sunday evening, wearing a salvar kameez, Paula Richman talks about Ramayana. A hundred-odd people steeped in the myths of Ramayana listen: they laugh, they clap, they cheer, they snigger and they relate to the stories Paula is telling them. Not her story but the many versions, visions and possibilities of Ramayana that Paula came across ever since she began her journey into the world of Ramayana when as a college student she laid her hands on R. K. Narayan's version in 1973.
Then the narrative intrigued her. Much later she came to learn Tamil. She heard about Ramasami Naicker's campaign against Ramayana. “I realised that if Ramayana was interesting enough for this person to read and attack it then there must be many versions and my interest was tickled,” says Paula. Having done her masters in History of Religions Paula went to Chicago where she did her PhD on the Tamil epic Manimekalai, the only extant 6th century Buddhist epic in Tamil. She also met her future husband and Michal Fisher, who is an authority on Farsi and Hindi and researched the emigration of Indians to Britain between 1600 and 1850. But she kept coming back to Rama and Ramayana and it led to her Many Ramayanas. “In Valmiki's Ramayana Rama is a just king and in Tulsidas' version he is an avatar of Vishnu. In the Yakshaganas, Kathakali and Ramleela traditions the elements get enriched and Rama and his story is seen from various points of view,” says Paula who teaches at the Oberlin College in Ohio.
Like the Grimm Brothers meeting the old lady who told them a number of stories, Paula hit the richest story lode when she met Mr Sharma in Chengamanadu in Kerala. He knew all the sthalapuranas.
From the time she started doing research, Paula has seen how the world has changed: “Earlier people would say they heard about Rama from relatives. Then, people would say they saw the story on television. Now, a number of people say they got to know about the story from comic books,” says Paula who described the four processes that are happening simultaneously on the Ramayana: Humanising, localising, contemperising and augumenting. Then she went on to narrate the stories she heard. “When we think of Rama and Sita we see an image where Lakshmana, Hanuman are also part of the picture. So, one day Sita decides that she should have quality time with Rama and she decides to create time slots for each of them. Lakshmana agrees, and Hanuman says: 'Mataji I will do as you say as long as I can bless Rama with long life whenever he sneezes.' Sita agrees. But when the time comes for Hanuman to leave Sita alone with Rama, Hanuman says: “Mataji I cannot leave as I don't know when he will sneeze!”
An extremely humane way of seeing the relationship, Paula brings together the versions of the story that is centuries old.
“My job is not to judge. My job is to make the stories heard and keep them as part of human tradition,” says Paula.