Classic myth retold
Reviewed by
Ram Varma

The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad: Meghnadbadh Kabya
By Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Trans William Radice.
Penguin Books.
Pages 552. Rs 499.

THE fount of poetry that flowed from the mouth of Rishi Valmiki probably three-four millennia ago in the form of the Ramayana has in time become a perennial river that has branched out into a thousand of streams. The story has tugged at the heartstrings of millions of people. It has also fired the imagination of innumerable poets in many languages in India and beyond, who have breathed new life into it, embellishing and enriching it, and inevitably transforming, even grossly distorting, the original.

One such celebrated rendering was by the Bengali poet Madhusudan Dutt who had embraced Christianity and added Michael to his name, and was among those who heralded the Bengal Renaissance in the mid-19th century. His Meghnadbadh Kabya had created many ripples in Bengali poetry (and society) when it appeared in 1861. It is strikingly different from the mainstream renderings of Valmiki Ramayana by major poets of India like Kalidas, Bhavabhuti, Kamban and Tulsidas, to name only the most celebrated, who like Valmiki sang the glory of Prince Rama in immortal verse. Unlike them, Dutt glorifies Ravan and his son Meghnad in mellifluous Bengali poetry, and paints Lakshman, who vanquished the latter, in a lurid light.

For unlike the great poets mentioned above, Dutt’s genius was not circumscribed by India and the Indian poetical tradition. He was a fine flower of modern Indian renaissance and had supped at the fount of the Western muse. He was an avid reader of the poetry of Valmiki, Homer, Vyasa, Virgil, Kalidas, Dante, Tasso and Milton, as he mentioned in a letter to a friend. Although his story is rooted in Valmiki, his epic poem is styled on Milton’s Paradise Lost, with Meghnad as its tragic hero. Taking inspiration from Homer’s Iliad, Dutt shows the Indian gods and goddesses like Shiva, Uma, Maya, Lakshmi, Indra and others playing politics and taking active part in influencing the course of events in the tragic drama in Lanka, even going to the extent of employing trickery and subterfuge. Indra, Karttikeya and other gods fight alongside Lakshman and Maya helps him reach inside the temple and kill the ‘invincible’ Meghnad who is offering his prayers there.

To be fair to Dutt, it must be admitted that Ravan and Meghnad have been elevated as heroes more dreadful than gods like Indra in the ‘Uttar Kanda’ of the extant Valmiki Ramayana, although both the ‘Bala Kanda’ and ‘Uttar Kanda’ are considered to be later insertions by most scholars. Their elevation was considered necessary to make them foes worthy of Rama’s stature, who had been deified as an avatar of Vishnu in the ‘Bala Kanda’.

Furthermore, it must be admitted that the episode of Lakshman disturbing the sacrificial rites that Meghnad’s was performing in the temple of Nikumbhila for gaining invincibility also occurs in the extant Valmiki Ramayana. But Dutt goes a step further and makes Lakshman ruthlessly slay an unarmed Meghnad, ignoring his pathetic pleas to let him get his weapons: "... like the warrior Abhimanyu, weaponless in battle, through the might of the seven charioteers."

Ironically, in Dutt’s treatment of the story, the folly of the Puranic pundits to recklessly glorify Ravan and Meghnad so as to enhance the glory of Lord Rama has come full circle and has indeed rebounded on them.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt was regarded as a ‘fallen angel’ by his contemporaries and Ravindranath Tagore in his critique of this poem had called it a ‘sacrilegious betrayal’ of Valmiki Ramayana, although later on he had softened towards Dutt.

William Radice has done an excellent job as a translator and has provided exhaustive notes on the sources the poet might have tapped in his composition. However, the title of the book showing a painting of a ten-headed Ravan grappling with a naked black-faced monkey (Hanuman) is inept and misleading, as no such fight occurs in Dutt’s poem.