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A modern retelling

"Prince of Ayodhya" is the rediscovery of an epic, says author Ashok K. Banker. In conversation with KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

IT IS a retelling for the 21st Century. Ashok K. Banker's narration of "The Ramayana" does not flow gently like the quiet Sarayu. It is tumultuous, fast paced, like the river, as he says, "in full spate."

Sample this beginning: "Rama: The blow-heat of rancid breath against his face, guttural whisper in his ear. He snapped awake. Sweat-drenched, fever-hot, bone chilled, springing from his satin bed... Sword now. A yard-and-a-half of gleaming Kosala steel, never out of reach, a bolt of lightning in his fist... "

The Mumbai-based Banker was in Chennai for a reading (not the above passage) from "Prince of Ayodhya", the first of a seven-volume series on the epic. The event was organised by Time Warner Books U.K. (represented in India by Penguin Books) and Landmark at its premises. The brief reading (along with Anuradha Ananth) was followed by a stormy interactive session with the audience.

For a person who is passionately involved with one of the greatest stories ever told, Banker was calm and unruffled, even when he was asked searching questions.Asked about negative reactions to his book, he said quietly and rather startlingly, "I feel I'm only answerable to Rama. I have stayed true to the essence of the story."

Excerpts from an interview:

What gave you the courage to take up a story that almost every Indian knows and considers sacred?

I've lived with the idea for 20 years and that has given me the courage. I come from a mixed family background. I grew up in a violent home and had to take care of my mother who was suffering from a mental illness from the time I was 14, till she died in 1990. I found solace in reading, in literary rebellion and was a minor celebrity as a poet in my teens. I wanted — most ambitiously — to write the story of India. Years later, after writing voraciously — crime thrillers, fantasies, autobiographical novels, newspaper articles — I dredged out the childhood manuscript and it became my life's passion to retell the epic.

Which are the features introduced by you and which of them are intrinsic to the epic?

I have not created or replotted for, who can improve upon the original, which is so good? However different or shocking some of it may be, it is all there in some version or the other. My contribution is in detailing, in the psychological and the emotional depth of the characterisation. I have read Valmiki, Tulsidas and Kamban — all possible texts in translation. What I have done is to take all the versions and give them in the form of a single book, one that is accesssible to all.

Does it not fit the Western type of adventure tale/fantasy with Rama as the clone of an adventure/action hero?

How would you show spiritual greatness except through actual deeds? Loosely interpreted "The Ramayana" means the adventures or travels of Rama. You are giving too much importance to Western literature. Our culture predates most others. We are surrounded by Hollywood so we think we are influenced by them. But it is they who have been influenced by us. In George Lucas' film "Star Wars", the idea of the blue light sabres is derived from the blue light of Brahman.

What was the reaction of fundamentalists?

They loved it. Otherwise I wouldn't be here.

How do you react to the criticism that the saga is aimed at a Western readership?

On the contrary, I've been told that it is too Indian by my Western readers and I had to add a glossary.

What do you think of the hype?

I wrote the book to rediscover "The Ramayana" and it was published later. I agreed to the promotion of the book as it had become a best-seller. In fact, I told Penguin, "Authors should be read, not seen or heard."

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