Sanskrit scholar Arshia Sattar's new book, Lost Loves, sees Rama with all his human follies. The author spoke on what set her on the unusual mission to map the psychological landscape of Rama
No other character from the Hindu mythology, perhaps, has been as enmeshed in modern Indian politics as Rama. While mystic poet Kabir once saw Rama as the ideal man who can't be tied down in idols or holy places, the controversy over the place of his birth threatened to rip apart the secular fabric of the country in the 1990s. More recently, A.K. Ramanujan's celebrated essay on Ramayana was taken off the Delhi University syllabus under pressure from right wing activists.
As a Sanskrit scholar and translator, Arshia Sattar has studied Rama through all these avatars. A Ph.D. from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, her translations of Valmiki Ramayana is an acclaimed work. Her recent book, “Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's Anguish”, looks at Rama as an angst-ridden character constantly torn between divinity and humanness. Wendy Doniger, well known Indologist, says that the book makes us see how deeply conflicted Rama is, and therefore, “what a valuable guide he provides for contemporary mortals like us, a far better model than a hero who knows he is a God and therefore can do no wrong.”
Excerpts of an interview with Arshia Sattar:
What compelled a feminist like you to psychoanalyse Rama's character?
It is an attempt to create a psychological landscape for a character that has become more and more opaque over the centuries either because he has been divinised or because he has been demonised. If you reject Rama and ignore him, you don't give him any emotional depth, he becomes flat and uni-dimensional. Equally so if he is a God. It's precisely as a feminist that I felt I had to examine Rama more closely – not to defend or justify some of his actions but to try and understand how and why he can act the way he does. We need to examine the characters and the ideas that trouble us as much as we need to examine the ideas that make us comfortable instead of simply going along with them. Our comforts and our discomforts need to explored, opened up, so that we can understand them and ourselves better.
Despite all efforts to “understand” Rama, is it not hard for a woman or a Dalit to come to terms with the character of Rama?
Of course it's hard for many of us to come to terms with the idea of Rama. It's been hard for me to do that as well. I don't think “coming to terms with Rama” means liking him or approving of him or endorsing his actions. It means we've thought about what he is and what he does for ourselves, rather than slipping into received and unreconstructed perceptions about him.
What do you think is Rama's central tragic flaw?
I'm not sure we can use this category here. It's rather too Shakespearean. Rama's tragedy is that he chooses the public over the personal, his role as a good king becomes supremely important to him. But it's this same choice, of giving up his love and personal happiness that makes him a hero to so many. There are many ways to read the character of Rama, many ways to understand exactly the same set of actions. Mine is just one among the many. And for me, the tragedy is that he is left so utterly alone at the end of Valmiki's story.
You make a distinction between Rama of the “middle books” and of Book 1 and Book 7. Can you say a little more on this and its implications?
It's in Books 1 and 7 that Rama is most clearly god. The middle books are more ambivalent about this and that's what gives us the space to enter the story and ask questions about this man who would be king.
Books 1 and 7 seem to attempt to iron out the contradictions and inconsistencies in the stories that have been told thus far. They answer the questions that we have as readers. As A.K. Ramanujan said, the epics grow around their own flaws. In that sense, they make the narratives richer and more complex and more diverse. Which is what we're having a hard time accepting these days.
A.K. Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana has been in controversy on the ground that it contains “disrespectful” references to some of the characters. Do you see an increasing touchiness for all things remotely connected to religion?
It's appalling that a university, of all places, would serve up hide-bound simplicity to its students instead of encouraging them to think more deeply and widely about subjects of study. We've always been touchy about religion – the ban on Rushdie's “The Satanic Verses” in 1987 was as reprehensible as Ramanujan's essay being removed from the Delhi University syllabus in 2011.
The way to negotiate this is simply to take back everything that has been taken away from us for the so-called public good – read Rushdie, read Ramanujan, restore the Ramayana to it's inherent complex and confusing diversity.
You have translated Valmiki's Ramayana and “Kathasaritsagara”. What are the particular difficulties in translating a classic into contemporary English?
It's the very things that make translating a classic difficult that make this process so very pleasurable and fulfilling. When you translate something from the distant past, you have to bridge time as well as space. It's as difficult to convincingly say “Dasaratha ruled for sixty thousand years” as it is to say “Sita walked with a swaying gait of female elephant.” In one case, the latter, you're trying to create an acceptable image from a culturally loaded simile. In the other you're trying to convey the hyperbolic style of an epic.
And in either case, you have to remain within the suspended disbelief that your reader offers you. It's a wonderful contract between the reader and the translator. Each of us gives up something to share this space.