INTERVIEW With An Indian Odyssey, Martin Buckley explores India using the Ramayana as compass, writes DIVYA KUMAR
Travel writer and journalist Martin Buckley’s An Indian Odyssey is a fascinating, complex and provocative book describing the author’s journey from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka on a motorcycle, tracing the path of Lord Rama in the Ramayana. Along the way, he recounts his colourful experiences working as a journalist in Bombay two decades ago and his deeply personal spiritual quest in India, interweaving it with observations about the changing socio-political climate in India and his modern, Heart of Darkness-esque version of the Valmiki Ramayana. Excerpts from an interview with the author:
Your central thesis in the book is that the Ramayana can help unravel the complexities of contemporary India. When did that notion strike you?
Very early on. I bought a copy of the Ramayana in Sri Lanka as a 22-year-old, and as I travelled through India, I kept meeting people who would share their experiences of India with me because they saw that I was reading it. So many people knew it so well and loved it. It became for me the map and compass through which I explored India. Then, you had that phenomenon of the first TV version, and then the Ayodhya incident. It began to come together at so many levels. I discovered I wanted to bring in, for example, the ‘Periyar movement’ and the role the Ramayana plays in the politics of Tamil Nadu. Plus, I’ve talked about the conflict in Sri Lanka and the parallels, in the minds of some of its participants, to the Ramayana.
Doing your own version of the Valmiki Ramayana… that’s a pretty monumental task.
It was a nightmare! The more I got into it, the more I realised, God, I’m dealing with a book that millions of people worship and venerate. Very few people in India have read the Valmiki Ramayana — they’ve all read the versions of Kambar or Tulsidas or something else. So, you’re taking on an epic that not only most Western audiences haven’t read, but of which there isn’t even a firm, stable text that everyone agrees upon. You’re talking about a cultural phenomenon, something that’s literature, but that’s also holy writ.
It seems like the story of the Ramayana itself takes a backseat to the cultural context in which it exists in the book...
Yes, my publishers wanted the book to not turn into an analysis of the Ramayana, but stay a travelogue, where I was I telling a story through my encounters in India. My original version of the Ramayana was actually much longer — three times longer. Purushottam Lal of Writers Workshop in Kolkata has offered to bring out that version as a book, so you might find it published in India soon!
Also, there’s a definite nostalgia about the India that was, a sense that the nation is losing some essence of Indianness.
I feel that India is at a point of cultural crisis. I see that the English-speaking classes, the secular classes, are very patronising of religion, and there’s this notion that somehow to have the secular state, you can’t embrace Hinduism. Certainly, you shouldn’t persecute any minorities, but why this knee-jerk rejection of what is the richest, continuous, unbroken culture of its kind in the world? Hinduism is just a deep, deep well of wisdom and I hate to see the English-speaking sophisticates turn their back on it.
If there was one thing you’d want the reader to take away from this book, what would it be?
The fundamental message of the book is that the Ramayana is an eternal story, such as the Odyssey or the Iliad. Another huge purpose of the book was to talk about spirituality. I had a deeply spiritual experience in India, which was a turning point in my life. I believe that people who don’t have a spiritual dimension have a lack in their lives; I think Western culture has a ghastly hole in the middle of it.
Any plans of returning to India?
I’m actually coming back in January to lead a travel tour. It’s going to be the first tour in the footsteps of Ram, which starts in Ayodhya, goes through India, and ends up in Sri Lanka, at this gigantic new statue of Hanuman they’ve built.The Reading
The launch of An Indian Odyssey at the Madras Terrace House recently proved to be as colourful as the book itself. Doing away with the structure of a formal reading (“Nobody likes hearing authors read… the mind wanders”), Martin Buckley chose instead to chat with the audience. The conversation was, at times, deeply serious, with impassioned discussions on spirituality and an intellectual debate on whether the Ramayana was just a myth. At others, it took a turn for the light-hearted, with the author fielding questions on his love life and talking about his stint as an extra in Bollywood movies (“I tried flirting with Shabana Azmi, but I don’t think she noticed.”) A natural storyteller, Buckley kept the audience engaged, making sure the book came alive.