Ramayana reimagined: book review of poetry collection After by Vivek Narayanan

The poet reinterprets the epic using mostly two-line verses, some prose and several illustrations

Updated - November 26, 2022 04:35 pm IST

Published - November 25, 2022 09:15 am IST

Statues of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana at Tapovan in Nashik, Maharashtra.

Statues of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana at Tapovan in Nashik, Maharashtra. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The great Indian epic Valmiki Ramayana, written in Sanskrit, dates back to the 7th to 4th centuries BCE. Belonging to the itihassa genre, the story of Rama, his wife Sita, brother Lakshmana, the Simian general Hanuman, and the evil king Ravana of Lanka is a familiar one with most children in India and South Asia, though perhaps not with the new generation.

It has been filmed, staged, translated, and transformed several times over by various scholars and film and stage directors. Vivek Narayanan, who teaches creative writing at George Mason University in the U.S., and writes poetry, is well qualified to offer the newest version of the epic. Set mostly in contemporary times, he reinterprets the story in a rather unique manner, using mostly two-line verses, some prose and several illustrations. As Narayanan puts it: “…the key to the Ramayana’s greatness lies in its innate multiplicity, its resilience and its potential for being retold.”

Narayanan’s version is not just an epic poem. It contains an entire section of reports on state violence against Naxals and Maoists, the atrocities in Kashmir by the Indian army, the displacement of the Pandit community, the state violence in Andhra Pradesh, and the brutality against Dalits. All this, however, is not woven into the poem itself.

Bits of philosophy

The book is not a page-turner as it does not follow a strict narrative style, and contains several philosophical interludes by its characters. Those not familiar with the epic may find it heavy-going, but in the end, very rewarding. The main text is almost 600 pages long but a worthwhile read, though it requires some patience by the lay reader.

A beautifully produced book, the illustrations blend with the narrative. I’m not sure how long it took Narayanan to write it but he has produced a work that will find an enduring place in the bookshelf. It is a true labour of love.

Vivek Narayanan
HarperCollins India

The reviewer has published ‘Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)‘.

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