The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 28, 2003

Now, a tapori retells the Ramayana!
Ashwini Bhatnagar

Prince of Ayodhya: Book One of the Ramayana
by Ashok Banker. Orbit.
Pages 532. Ł 3.75.

Prince of Ayodhya: Book One of the RamayanaTHE blurb describes Ashok Banker’s effort at retelling Valmiki’s Ramayana as one of "breathtaking imagination and brilliant storytelling" but forgets to mention that it is also a gravely fallacious attempt. If going bonkers with a widely read story is breathtaking imagination then Banker certainly deserves the highest literary prize for his sheer lunacy. And as far as ‘brilliant storytelling’ is concerned, it sorely depends on the television serial Banker had seen before writing a particular chapter. He saw a Bruce Lee film and Ninja Turtles animated series just before he started writing the book. The result: in the opening chapter, Rama wields the sword (yes, a sword and not the traditional bow and arrow as we have known so far) a la Bruce Lee and Ninja Turtles rolled into one. Sample a couple of descriptions (and please don’t start laughing now. There’s much more to come): "the blow-heat of rancid breath against his (Rama’s) face, guttural whisper in his ear. He snapped awake. Sweat-drenched, fever-hot, bone chilled, springing from his satin bed, barefoot on the cool redstone floor. Sword, now`85 Soft rustle of the silken gold-embroidered loin-cloth around his tight abs. Naked feline grace. Taut young muscles, supple limbs, senses instantly attuned to the slightest hint of threat.`85 Breathing in the pranayam style, he executed a martial asana that was part attack and part spiritual discipline. In three breathtakingly (the blasted word again!) graceful leaps, it took him to the veranda that ringed one side of the circular chamber. Sword slashing through the gossamer folds of the translucent drape that could conceal an assassin. Turn, turn, breathe, slice, follow-through, recover, resume stance." Phew! Ninja Turtles practising their swordmanship in Bruce Lee ishtyle!


The next day Banker surely saw a horror show. "Rakshasas twice as tall as men, roaring with exultation as they impaled human soldiers on their enormous antlered horns, then using their curved yellow talons to tear open bellies and suck the steaming entrails into their hungry mouths." Apparently, Ayodhya is under attack but before you can say "Hey have you gone bonkers?" Banker tells you that it is a dream sequence which may be played out in reality too at a later date. But wait till he writes his third and fourth and may be the fifth and the 10th book in order to collect the Rs 10 crore that are due to him from the publishers.

But the first book, Prince of Ayodhya (to be followed by Siege of Mithila and Demons of Chitrakut), needs to move on and as luck would have it the author bumps into Shobhaa De or someone as salacious as her. There is a huge marital discord brewing in the royal palace. Mata Kausalya calls Maharaja Dasaratha "a royal fool" while the maid Manthara calls Kaikeyi "a slut" and "a whore." And if you must know, Dasaratha’s second queen had gone to a bar the night before and had "let that lout at the inn pour all those cups of cheap wine down her throat last night`85. Ah, but he was such a handsome, well-constructed lout. With an effort, she shoved her companion of the night before out of her mind`85"

Meanwhile, the old king, who had gone to Kausalya’s chamber after 15 years, had naked servant girls running after him and he had even had touched the breast of one of them. But this did not distract him from sorting out his problems with Kausalya, and he fell into bed with his queen, and, here mark Banker’s eye for detail, after he had "unfastened and tossed aside his dhoti" and had "unravelled the last fold of her sari and covered her body with his own." The poor man was so excited that Banker tells us that Dasaratha "was astonished to find himself weeping with pleasure and pain both at once." You think the author is very imaginative? I also think so! The storytelling is breathtaking, to say the least and, like in a video clip, one can see Banker’s imagination panting at the effort to write such unadulterated crap.

No, honey, as Shobhaa De would tell Banker at one of dos for the launch of this magnum opus, it is not about the sex that we are talking about. It is about your utter lack of merit to even attempt retelling a story of such proportions. This isn’t A Mouthful of Sky whose only claim to fame was that it was the first serial in English on Indian television and which was as quickly forgotten as it was aired. This is the Ramayana which has survived many an attempt by a "shrewd bastard" (not my words, Kaikeyi’s for Dasaratha) to twist it out of shape. Even reading the Ramayana requires a fidelity that our man does not possess.

Talking about fidelity, Banker is sure that the word Ayodhya means unconquerable. Now who are scholars of Sanskrit and Hindi to tell him that it means no war or a city of peace? Similarly, even if we give him the artistic licence to place the city anywhere he wishes to —in the valley of the Sarayu river with its waters being of glacial melt (though the fact is that the river has no valley and flows through the Indo-Gangetic plain) — pray how come one passes "mango groves, orange orchards, apple groves, grape vineyards and sugarcane patches," not to mention jackfruit trees, all at once? I thought apples were grown in the hills and sugarcane in the plains! But why bother about narrative fidelity? It is stunning storytelling after all and the readership is all going to be firang.

But even if those dumb firangs read this tale of "Rama’s courage that will save or damn Ayodhya," what sense will they make out of Rama teasing Lakshman about his future wife Urmila: "The one with whom you were caught swimming nanga in the fountain?"

The firangs would surely understand nanga because they go around nanga most of the time, specially on beaches of Goa. But to lesser mortals like you and me, the dialogue is just a throwback on Banker’s TV days wherein he could combine nanga with panga and tell you about the bhes-bhav of the giantess Tataka and "put my lance through one them khottey-sikkey!" And if you still can’t make out, damn you. "Just go and pay Yama-raj’s bill."

Banker writes all this and much more with incredibly atrocious felicity of his pen. He has made a mockery of everything— language, location, mythology, plot and substance. He could have shown Rama watching courtesans dance. But a mujra! This form of recitation (and not dance) came into being during the time of the Nawabs of Oudh (please, not Ayodhya because it was never ruled by the nawabs). Dasaratha couldn’t have read the Kamasutra. It was written hundreds of years later. And please, for heaven’s sake, the famous shloka ‘karmanye vaadika swahikaaraste`85’ from the Gita was not prevalent during Rama’s time. Gita was written hundreds of years later. Also, Rama doesn’t have to go to Lanka to battle Ravana. According to Banker, the demon-king is preparing his fleet to come to Ayodhya. He has already got Manthara to indulge in subversion in the ‘legendary capital of warriors and seers.’

The point in retelling a story is to bring a greater understanding to it by lending it your own grace and poise, if not a contemporary vision. Tulsidas based his Ramacharitmanas on Ramayana and showcased Maryadapurshottam Rama as a counterfoil to then current ideologyless rule. He brought grace and substance to the character of Rama and made him socially relevant to the extent that Rama worship found a new currency since then. One doesn’t expect this from Banker, he never had it in him either to write well or to present a vision. But a certain fidelity to plot, language, characterisation, dialogue and narration is expected. Rama’s time and age, even if mythical, had its own tone and tenor, its character and social nuances. Banker could have recreated them faithfully and then turn the legend on its head if he wanted to. But a totally cavaliar attitude is unacceptable and unpardonable. It’s tapori-isation of the Ramayana.

"I am a reincarnation of Hanuman"

Ashok BankerExcerpts from an interview with Ashok Banker:

The Prince of Ayodhya is a totally different genre from your earlier novels like Byculla Boy and Vertigo. Why the Ramayana?

Mythology has always fascinated me. I have been a writer since I was 10 years old and a reader even before that. I used to read a lot of mythology both Indian and western. I even wrote three fantasy novels; part Greek, part Indian when I was 16 or 17 years old. Due to family circumstances, I had to drop out of school and began to write to earn my living as an ad copywriter and also a journalist. But then in my mid-thirties I began to go through a crisis. I had realised my dream of being a full-time writer and making my living as a writer, but what was I writing? I had lost the connection with the young Ashok, who had grown up dreaming of being a fantasy writer. So I began reading these stories again. I read every edition of the Ramayana – the Kamban version, Tulsidas’, C Rajagopalchari’s version for children, R. K Narayan and Arshiya Sattar’s version.

Critics have accused you of sensationalising, of using profane language and using sex. How do you reconcile this with the sacred aspect of a book like the Ramayana?

I have written honestly and with a great deal of respect for the people I am writing about – there is sex and profanity even in Tulsidas’ Ramayana. In my book, it is only the profane people who use profane language – nowhere does Rama use any objectionable language. I am not afraid, if anyone has a problem, it’s a mote in their own eye, rather than a flaw in my book.

What about historical authenticity -- your description of Holi in the book, for instance, is very contemporary?

My book is not historically authentic; I have not aimed for historical verisimilitude. While certain events may not actually have happened, it is extremely plausible that they did. Sometimes certain details, while not historically accurate, function in a psychological sense of making the character come alive. I didn’t see anything wrong with using a modern metaphor.

Your version of the Ramayana has a lot of contemporary Hindi terms in it...

I have definitely taken liberties. But it was also important to show the universality of certain characters. Ram and Lakshman, for instance, are teenagers and certain essential qualities remain the same – they are robust, playful and energetic. So, on the very first page in my description of Rama, I have spoken of his ‘tight abs’, thus forming a contract with the reader –this is the way I am going to explore this story, if you find it jarring or disturbing read no more.

Has writing this book changed your life in anyway?

Absolutely. Everything seemed to fall into place in my life. It was like I was driven to write this story. It came to me in dreams — vividly and intensely. A very dear friend of mine though is convinced that I am a reincarnation of Hanuman. Like Tulsidas, I was driven to tell the tale.

Interview by Sonya Dutta Choudhury

(Photo: courtesy The Week)